When Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins was named the NHL's rookie of the month for October, members of the Washington Capitals' front office grumbled quietly. Capitals fans posted angry messages on the team's Web site. Newspaper columnists in other cities wrote that Crosby won because he's the NHL's designated Golden Boy.
Ordinarily, the rookie of the month award is greeted with a collective shrug, sometimes even by the player who wins it.
But Crosby, the first overall draft pick in July, and the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin, the No. 1 choice in 2004, are no ordinary rookies. The two are widely considered the best players in a generation, prolific scorers charged with resuscitating their respective franchises and repairing the league's image, which was tarnished by the lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season.
Tonight, the budding rivalry between Crosby and Ovechkin leaps onto the ice, when they meet for the first time as NHL players at Mellon Arena in Pittsburgh.
"We're very lucky to have these two great rookies come into the league at the same time after what the game just went through," said Barry Melrose, an ESPN hockey analyst and former NHL coach. "The NBA got LeBron [James]. We got Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin. It's going to be an exciting rivalry for years to come."
New York Islanders General Manager Mike Milbury agreed.
"Having players of their caliber to hype is a great thing, particularly at such an important time for the league," Milbury said.
Washington Capitals majority owner Ted Leonsis repeatedly has said he hopes Crosby and Ovechkin do for the NHL what Magic Johnson and Larry Bird did for the NBA in the 1980s. It's a lot to ask of players not two months into their first seasons, and Crosby and Ovechkin did their best to play down the game's significance in interviews yesterday.
"I can't speak for both of us," Crosby said. "But for me, I've played  games in the NHL. I think I have a long ways to go before I can compare myself to guys like that. I'm sure he thinks the same way. We're having fun playing in the NHL, but we have a long ways to go before we get to a matchup like that."
Ovechkin said: "It's just a game, but everybody is speaking about me and Sidney and like comparisons of me and him. I think that we must play hard, me and him, and play as a team and win the game."
Milbury and Melrose, like many hockey insiders, were hesitant to say which player is better, for two reasons: The season only is a quarter complete, and Crosby's and Ovechkin's styles of play are so different.
Crosby is an 18-year-old playmaking center who can set up teammates with slick, cross-ice passes or put the puck in the net himself. Ovechkin, a 20-year-old goal-scoring winger, is as comfortable crunching an opposing defenseman with a body check as he is skating the puck end-to-end and finishing with a spectacular goal.
Crosby has 10 goals and 15 assists in 21 games for the Penguins, who are in last place in the Atlantic Division. Ovechkin has 15 goals and six assists for the Capitals, who are tied with the Florida Panthers for last place in the Southeast Division. They've ranked 1-2 in rookie scoring all season, with Crosby holding a slight edge in points. In June, one will win the Calder Trophy, the award given to the league's top rookie.
"He's a great player," Crosby said of Ovechkin. "Obviously, he has had a great start to the season so far. He's got good speed. He can do it all, I think. He's got a great shot, too. He's definitely dangerous when he's out there. He's someone I'm sure other teams have to watch. He's really dangerous. So, like I said, he's a great player."
Ovechkin was similarly complimentary.
"I think we are different players," he said. "He's a great passer, like [Wayne] Gretzky, and he can see the ice. He makes a great pass; he's a really great player. I didn't see any of his physical game, but he scored 10 goals and like I said, he plays very good."
Despite their teams' lagging performance, Crosby and Ovechkin are at the center of the NHL universe these days. Their exploits are replayed nightly on sports highlight shows. National magazines are scheduling cover-photo shoots. In fact, the Globe and Mail newspaper in Toronto has assigned a reporter to live in Pittsburgh specifically to cover all things Crosby, who began eliciting comparisons to Gretzky before he could legally drive a car.
Just hours after the Penguins won the right to pick Crosby this summer, phone lines at the team's arena crashed under the flood of fans calling to purchase tickets. The perennially cash-strapped franchise reportedly sold more tickets by August than it did during the entire 2003-04 season.
Two hundred and fifty miles away in Washington, a town without much hockey tradition, the buzz surrounding Ovechkin has been growing slowly as both he and the rebuilding Capitals have surpassed expectations.
Tonight actually marks the second time the two phenoms have faced off. They skated against each other Jan. 4 in Grand Forks, N.D., where Crosby's Team Canada defeated Ovechkin's Russian squad to claim the world junior championship. Crosby had an assist; Ovechkin went pointless.
"It's so exciting," Capitals Coach Glen Hanlon said. "The league has put emphasis on the game by the way they are selling it. For the players, when you play 82 games in a season, it's fun to be involved in games like this. I'm sure in Edmonton, with all of the different milestones they had with Gretzky and [Mark] Messier and those great players, there must have been a lot of nights where there was a little added incentive."