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One rink for three-ring circus

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

There's still much for the world to like in this Pittsburgh Penguins-Washington Capitals clash, when this Eastern Conference semifinal begins tomorrow 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 expect 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 on Wednesday. "That's great for the league, great for the postseason."

Clashing is an apt description.

In only four Pens-Caps meetings this season (Washington won three), 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 on February 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.

Scoring champion

To the Capitals, Crosby is more than the face of the league, he's also the mouth of it - they accuse 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 showoff.

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 on Wednesday as the three finalists for the Hart Trophy that goes to the league MVP.

The Penguins and Capitals will play a 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 21-year-old Russian who started only five games during the season before replacing Jose Theodore two games into the playoff series against the New York Rangers. 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.

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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