PITTSBURGH (AP) – They are the new faces of a sport whose stars were bogged down for a decade by talent-negating holding and hooking, of a league that endured a full-season shutdown partly to give them a proper showcase for their talents.

When they meet Tuesday night for the first time in what could be the new NHL’s version of Gretzky vs. Lemieux, Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh and Alexander Ovechkin of Washington won’t be thinking about ushering in a new era that emphasizes playmaking and goal-scoring, not trapping and goal-stopping.

Nor will be they be checking the scoresheet between periods to monitor their individual matchup – on Monday, Crosby said he glances occasionally at the NHL statistics to see who is doing what, but necessarily to gauge how he is doing compared to Ovechkin.

“It’s not something I follow religiously or anything,” he said.

Many around the NHL are closely following them, no doubt hoping these two No. 1 draft picks – Ovechkin in 2004, Crosby this year – become the signatures stars they very much appear to be. As Capitals owner Ted Leonsis pointed out, the NBA reinvented itself a quarter-century ago when young stars named Magic Johnson and Larry Bird freshened up a tiring league whose championship games had been relegated to tape-delay TV.

So far, neither Ovechkin nor Crosby is threatening to win the scoring title as a rookie, but each is having exactly the kind of season envisioned for them.

Crosby has been more of a playmaker, with 10 goals, 15 assists and a league rookie-best 25 points in 21 games, while Ovechkin has been a goal scorer par excellence with a rookie-high 15 goals and six assists in 20 games.

Gretzky. Lemieux. Bird, Magic. Pretty good company for a pair of kids whose combined age – Crosby is 18, Ovechkin is 20 – is two years less than the 40-year-old Lemieux, on whose line Crosby occasionally plays with Pittsburgh.

“I don’t want to speak for the both of us but, for me, I’ve played 21 games in the NHL, and I think I have a long ways to go before I can compare myself to guys like that,” Crosby said Monday. “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.”

The league must go a long way back to find a parallel matchup of young stars – to Nov. 6, 1984, the first Gretzky vs. Lemieux contest. Gretzky scored the game-tying goal in the third period and had six shots in a 3-3 tie between Edmonton and Pittsburgh, while the Penguins’ Lemieux didn’t get a single shot but had an assist.

However, while Lemieux was the rookie, Gretzky was already in his seventh full season in the WHA or NHL, though he would not turn 24 for another two months. Gretzky was in his 30s when Lemieux hit his prime by leading the Penguins to successive Stanley Cups in 1991-92.

By contrast, Crosby and Ovechkin are only two years apart, so their careers will usually be at comparable points. Even if it’s not those two who are comparing themselves.

“I don’t compare me and Sidney because I think we are different players,” Ovechkin said. “He’s a great passer, like Gretzky, and sees the ice real well. … My job is to score goals.”

Each has shown the flair for the dramatic, too – an intangible quality the top-tier stars seem to have. In a one-week span, Crosby had the game-winning overtime score in the first shootout in the Montreal Canadiens’ history and an overtime breakaway game-winner in Philadelphia. Ovechkin had a game-tying goal against Tampa Bay and the decisive shootout goal a few minutes later.

“Ovechkin is a real dominant player. He can score, he can create,” Penguins coach Eddie Olczyk said.

Unlike those Gretzky-Lemieux games, Ovechkin vs. Crosby should be more than a once- or twice-a-year attraction. The teams play three more times this season, with the next game coming Jan. 25 in Pittsburgh.

The two have met before, most recently in the world junior championships in North Dakota last winter. Crosby-led Canada beat Ovechkin-led Russia 6-1 in the final, with Ovechkin finishing the tournament with 11 points (7 goals) to Crosby’s nine points (five goals).

Crosby on Ovechkin: “He’s really dangerous. He’s a great player.” Ovechkin on Crosby: “He can be faster than the other guys. He’s a dangerous guy.”

“Hopefully, people will get excited,” Crosby said of this rivalry in the making. “I think we have a lot to prove before we put ourselves at that (Gretzky-Lemieux) level. Having two younger guys who are both playing each other for the first time, I can understand that maybe some people are excited.”

AP-ES-11-21-05 1751EST


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