One rink for Ovechkin-Malkin-Crosby three-ring circus

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PITTSBURGH - Alex Ovechkin doesn't like Sidney Crosby. Neither does Alexander Semin, who calls Crosby an overrated product of the NHL's hype machine. Ovechkin disliked Evgeni Malkin, too, but now appears to like him again.

Oh, but there's much for the hockey world to like in this Penguins-Capitals matchup, beginning Saturday when the Eastern Conference semifinal series begins in Washington.

Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau compares it to the circus.

The main attraction is flashy enough - the NHL's three biggest names under one big top for up to two weeks - but the sideshows are intriguing and figure to be entertaining. With the NHL's last two MVPs and last three scoring champions in the same series, plus a noticeable edginess whenever the teams meet, there should be plenty of subplots and sound bites.

Who will be the ringmaster?

"There's more to stars meeting here, great hockey players meeting, there's great personalities, strong personalities, there's faces of the league that are clashing," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Wednesday. "That's great for the league, great for the post-season."

Clashing is an apt description.

In only four Penguins-Capitals meetings this season (Washington won three), an agitated Ovechkin - apparently motivated by an off-ice dispute involving an agent - lined up Malkin several times for hits. Although Ovechkin and Malkin patched up their feud at the all-star game, apparently with the help of fellow Russian Ilya Kovalchuk of Atlanta, Crosby said Ovechkin went out of his way to target Malkin.

Later in the season, Ovechkin and Crosby went at it, exchanging pushes and yapping at each other Feb. 22 in Washington.

Semin also created a stir by saying there's nothing special about Crosby and that "if you take any player, even if he's dead wood, and start promoting him, he'll be a star."

That was before Crosby, the 2006-07 MVP and the league's No. 3 scorer this season, led the Penguins' 4-3 win in Washington on March 8 by scoring in regulation and during the shootout.

To the Capitals, Crosby is more than the face of the league, he's also the mouth of it - they accuse of him of talking too much and whining to the officials. Crosby hasn't responded with criticism in kind, but it's obvious he thinks Ovechkin, last season's MVP and scoring champion, is a hot dog.

Malkin, who succeeded Ovechkin (2007-08) and Crosby (2006-07) by winning the scoring title this season, Ovechkin and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk were announced Wednesday as the three finalists for the Hart Trophy that goes to the league MVP.

No wonder Boudreau said after the Capitals eliminated the Rangers by winning 2-1 Tuesday in Game 7, "It wasn't Ringling Brothers, anyway. Now we're playing Pittsburgh (and) welcome to the circus."

There's plenty to fill all three rings of it.

Just three years ago, they were the two worst teams in the Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh was No. 15 and last, Washington was No. 14. Pittsburgh has since won the conference and reached the Stanley Cup finals, losing last season to Detroit, and Washington won its first playoff series in 11 years after finishing second in the conference this season.

"I remember (telling) Alex when he first came over, his first day, I said we are going to be really bad, really bad, (but) we're going to be good, and then we're going to be great," Capitals owner Ted Leonsis said.

Whether the Capitals reach such a status this season may well depend on how they do in this compact series. There are no two-day breaks and the teams, if necessary, will play Game 4 (in Pittsburgh) and Game 5 (in Washington) on successive days.

The Caps' success or failure also may ride on rookie goaltender Simeon Varlamov, a 20-year-old who started only five games during the season before replacing Jose Theodore two games into the Ranger series. Varlamov responded by going 4-2 with a 1.17 goals-against average.

However, shutting down the Rangers, who scored the third-fewest goals during the season, is much different from controlling the Penguins and two of the league's top three scorers.

"Young goaltenders, they can ride that youth, that energy and have big games and big saves," Bylsma said. "We're going to do our best to try to give him some different looks, some second chances, some pucks that are east-west around the net and see if we can't break him down."

To date, neither team has succeeded in shutting down the other. Ovechkin has 10 goals and 11 assists in 16 games against Pittsburgh. Malkin has six goals and 11 assists in 12 games and Crosby has eight goals and 18 assists in 15 games against Washington.

A circus, indeed.


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