By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, May 5, 2009
The puck had barely rippled the net behind Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-André Fleury when the first hat fluttered out of the Verizon Center stands and onto the ice. That merely started the onslaught, and when it was all but cleaned up -- two trashcans, filled to the brim -- another followed, because Alex Ovechkin had scored his third goal of the night, and a hat trick in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals merits such delirium.
On the ice, Ovechkin's counterpart, Pittsburgh center Sidney Crosby, wanted to play. Just two games into this series, there is already a feeling that no action from one of these stars will go without a corresponding move from the other. So Crosby skated over to the referee for a word.
"I was just asking if he could make an announcement to ask them to stop," Crosby said of the fans. "I mean, the first wave came, and then I think they were all pretty much picked up, and then more started coming."
Eventually, they stopped, and the NHL's two most luminous talents continued on, a crowd of 18,277 well aware that if they took their eyes off either of them, they might miss something unforgettable. Over the course of the Capitals' 4-3 victory over the Penguins, there were seven goals. Six came from the sticks of Crosby and Ovechkin, creating a ping-pong feel and placing the focus of the league's postseason on its most intriguing subplot.
"When Crosby gets one, then Ovie comes back with a couple, and then Crosby gets another, and Ovie gets another," Capitals forward Brooks Laich said. "It's unbelievable to see two of the best going at it like that. . . . In the biggest moments, usually your biggest guys step to the front. That's what Alex did tonight."
In the Pittsburgh locker room, the Penguins said the same about Crosby. Thus, in the series' first two games -- both won by Washington -- unmatchable hype is being matched, because the two best players have four goals apiece and are delivering the kind of performances that forge true rivalries. There was, prior to the series, already animosity between the two stars, who have tussled physically on the ice and verbally, a bit, off it. They have split the past two Hart Trophies as league MVP. Crosby led the Penguins to the Stanley Cup finals a year ago, and Ovechkin desperately wants to match that now.
Because of that, and their standing in the game, so many pre-series questions centered on the potential for a Bird-vs.-Magic, Borg-vs.-McEnroe quality to this matchup. It took all of two games to establish, because as much as the players and coaches tried to force the focus to "team play" and "the other guys in the room," the spotlight rests squarely on Ovechkin, the scruffy rogue of a Russian, and Crosby, the slick Canadian.
"It's why 'they' are 'they,' " Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau said, "why Crosby and Alex are who they are, because not too many people could do what they did tonight."
Crosby struck first, less than seven minutes in on the power play. His every move at Verizon Center is greeted with thunderous boos, and they only intensified with the Penguins up 1-0.
Ovechkin came back, though, early in the second, converting beautiful passes from Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. Ovechkin's every move at Verizon Center is greeted with a full-crowd inhale, the kind that is only released when the shot is taken or the hit is delivered. When he beat Fleury to tie the score, the exhale became an explosion, and the duel was on. Crosby put the Penguins up 2-1. Ovechkin gave the Capitals their first lead at 3-2, then used Pittsburgh defenseman Sergei Gonchar as a screen for the hat trick before Crosby matched him in the final minute.
"Sick game," was all Ovechkin would say by way of reaction. "Sick three goals by me and him."
It is, by and large, how the pair of them are dealing with the amount of attention their matchup is generating. They acknowledge their role in an exciting series -- "I'm sure it's entertaining for people to watch," Crosby said -- but dismiss the stats, the stardom, the rivalry.
"It's nice to score," Crosby said, "but it's better to win."
To this point, only Ovechkin has done that. Now it is Crosby's move.