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Two points in the standings.

OK, maybe something beyond that. It's always humorous to watch players, teams, writers and fans dance around the fact that the Alex Ovechkin(notes) vs. Sidney Crosby(notes) rivalry makes these Capitals vs. Penguins games something so much more than a battle between geographic, formerly divisional rivals; or conference foes; or a champion vs. a contender.

We all know it, but there's this dutiful notion that we need to downplay it rather than celebrate it; as if there's more virtue in debating the value of Kevin McHale and James Worthy when it's Bird and Magic that we're there to watch.

We do this as sports fans because we've all been beaten over the head by the Sidney vs. Ovie thing so bluntly (thanks, CTV) and so frequently (thanks, NBC intermission report) and so ridiculously (like doing "tales of the tape" for players that are on the ice against each other for about 2 minutes a game).

We do this as hockey fans because we have a natural allergy towards the mainstreaming of our sport; and Sidney vs. Ovie time is the time when you walk into the press box expecting to see Tony Kornheiser's name on the seating chart in DC.

We do this in the blogosphere because, quite frankly, mentioning Crosby and Ovechkin within any reasonable vicinity of each other initiates a chemical reaction in the readership; one that produces a seemingly endless amount of anger, resentment, jingoism, emasculation, ignorance, liberal use of the words "bitch" and "thug" and general unpleasantness between the warring factions. (It usually makes one yearn for the polite, reasoned debate that, say, Rahm Emanuel visiting a Tea Party convention might encourage by comparison.)

All of this recoils from the fact that the Ovechkin vs. Crosby rivalry, on the ice, has been the stuff of hockey legend. The trophy races. The playoff showdown. The fact that they have eight goals in two games between the teams this season. If anything, these guys have delivered on the hype in ways we couldn't have imagined, because the hype has been so deafening.

He doesn't do it often, but Allan Muir of SI captured tonight's Pittsburgh Penguins at Washington Capitals matchup, and the rivalry overall, quite well: The championship-caliber teams are the main course, but Ovie and Sid are the sizzle. So here are the stakes.

The Rocket Richard Trophy

At this point last season, Ovechkin was at 50 goals while Crosby was at 28.

One of the reasons I love Crosby as a player (yes, in fact it is true, Pittsburgh-fans-with-unshakable-preconceptions): His ability to work his ass off to improve facets of his game. He's done the work on face-offs. He's done the work as a defensive player. He's done the work on shootouts, to the point where Mike Babcock was using him on penalty shots in the Olympics over the guy that was fouled. And now he's done the work on goal-scoring, because he's at 45 goals on March 24, 2010.

So is Ovechkin, which has intensified their rivalry. It was going to be a given for the rest of their careers: Ovechkin's the goals guy, Sidney's the assists guy, and they'll battle for the Art Ross in points every year. Crosby probably can't catch Ovechkin for the Ross since he's down 9 points, but he can end Ovechkin's Richard run at two seasons.

The Reputation Thing

Nothing Ovechkin does in this game will erase his disappointing performance on and off the ice in Vancouver. Nothing will change the minds of those who believe he's some kind of hockey gangster who's sullied the game with his injurious behavior. Those changes can only come with a Cup or, more to the point, a Conn Smythe. The scars run that deep.

But tonight, with the hockey world watching again, Ovechkin can remind a few people what he's able to do as a leader, as a star, as a difference-maker on his team. That it's not all shoves in the back and dangerous hits and clashes with the media on the international stage. Again, not convincing; reminding.

Helping To Broker a Milbury/Roenick Peace Accord

Seriously, we hate when smart-alecky dad and angry uncle fight. Maybe if either Crosby or Ovechkin shows us something heroic and definitive, these two guys can find the common ground they usually can only find in the bottom of a bottle we hope the can one day discover in the Sid/Ovie debate. 

In The End, It's Just Another Battle in the War

Oh, and let's not pretend it's something less than a war. These guys don't like each other. Their supporters don't like each other. Their hockey nations don't like each other. Even in providing a big picture quote to reporters today (via Capitals Insider), Crosby said, in essence, that this is a long-term clash between the two biggest stars in the game, and in the end we're going to have a victor:

"There's nothing I can do to really change that or affect that," Crosby said. "I'm not stupid. I don't think this is going to be the last time him and I play each other, or the last time we're going to play each other in the Olympics or the playoffs. Early on, we've seen each other a lot, and I've been fortunate enough to have those things happen, but you know what? We're still young. There's a lot of time left.

"I think the best time to judge players is after their career and things like that. I think I evaluate myself after every year, but by no means do I compare myself to him based on that. I never will. My goals don't change based on what he does, and I'm sure it's the same for him. The things that drive us will always be the same no matter what."

The thing is victory, which is the highest stake tonight and every night for the two best players in the game. Here's hoping for another classic moment or 10.

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