Once again, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin are bringing out the best in each other

WASHINGTON, D.C.-- During the scramble in front of the Pittsburgh Penguins net late in Game 1, when a helmet-less Alex Ovechkin was frantically trying to push the puck past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, the Washington Capitals captain was simply trying to do everything in his power to even the score, extend the game and gain the edge in their Eastern Conference semifinals series.

He wasn't necessarily trying to one-up Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who had given the Penguins the lead with two earlier goals. But there's no question that Ovechkin and Crosby -- the two biggest giants of their generation -- have historically brought the best out of each other, and it was true again on Thursday in their latest showdown.

In a 64-second span at the start of the second period, Crosby effectively won Game 1. He showed how quickly he can change a game, even a series, by scoring two goals in less than a minute.

"He was dangerous. He was attacking," said Penguins center Matt Cullen. "He's just so dangerous when he has his stick on the puck."

Even if it's on his stick for a mere moment, like it was for Crosby's one-timer, which opened the scoring.

As anyone who knows their history and rich rivalry would expect, Ovechkin responded, scoring 17:13 later in that period on a 35-foot shot that made it 2-1 and ignited both the Verizon Center crowd and a Washington comeback.

Watching the two superstars trade big goals, it was hard not to wonder how much they drive each other during these showdowns.

Crosby's second strike had tied him with Ovechkin in goals scored during the 14 playoff games against each other, at 10, and put Crosby ahead in goals scored during this postseason, with four. But not for long. Ovechkin now has 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists), and Crosby has 17 (10 goals, seven assists).

So, just how much does one superstar motivate the other in games like this?

"Both athletes, they're driven," said Capitals coach Barry Trotz. "I don't think they're driven by the other guy's success or whatever. They're just driven athletes. That's why they're in the Top 100 in the history of this league. They're the faces of both franchises. You can say that, in a lot of ways, they've saved our game since they first came into the league, from lockouts and what have you. They're special athletes."

And it's that singular drive that makes each of them great. Both players have evolved since they debuted during the 2005-06 season and started going toe-to-toe, motivated by the internal fire that makes each one a generational player.

Crosby is still constantly focused on rounding out his game. He's relentless in his preparation, always working to hone each skill in his toolbox to get incrementally better. He's never complacent. That's why he has remained the best player in the world, even as the league is flooded with young star players ready to steal his crown.

"He's done it year after year, and he's found ways to manufacture goals," said Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman and former Capital Connor Carrick of Crosby.

Carrick shared the thought process behind Crosby's constant tinkering.

"'If I just make sure I stop in front, I'll get four to five extra [goals] a year. If I can work on my backhand or faceoffs, that's two more,'" he said. "All of a sudden, he's building. He's able to build piece by piece by piece."

Crosby does it so that when that split-second opportunity to make a difference presents itself during a game, he still has the tools to capitalize on it.

He just needs that sliver, that small crack, to change the course of a game. The Capitals were the better team for a majority of Game 1, but because Crosby capitalized on key moments, the Penguins are up 1-0 in the series. That's the kind of impact he has.

As for Ovechkin, Trotz has seen an evolution in his leadership. There's a leadership theory that says, "Help others get what they want and you'll get what you want." Scoring goals during the playoffs has never been a issue for Ovechkin. His production has never been the problem during the Capitals' postseason failures.

Trotz said Ovechkin has evolved into a leader who not only scores the big goals but who has a better grasp on how to bring his teammates along with him.

"The thing about leadership is you care about everybody else first," Trotz said. "That's where Alex has grown a lot, probably, from his early years."

Now more mature, Crosby and Ovechkin are co-writing another chapter in the rivalry that defines their generation.

Soon enough, this league will be about Auston Matthews vs. Connor McDavid or some other emerging rivalry among the teenagers who have entered the league already playing at a level beyond any group of young players before them.

But today, it's OK to enjoy the classics, especially while they're still being played at a peak level, like we saw in Game 1.

"That's what hockey is all about," Cullen said. "It's been exciting every time those two play each other, since the beginning. They're always kind of linked, like Mario and Gretzky. Those are the competitions and rivalries that fuel sports."