The showdown between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby at the Igloo tomorrow night is the most anticipated game to hit the Steel City in years.
It has been a long time since a pair of teenagers have lived up to their advanced billings with such pizzazz. Both Ovechkin, the top overall pick in the 2004 draft by the Washington Capitals, and Crosby, who went No. 1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005, have been two of the most exciting performers in this young NHL season.
So who is the top candidate to be selected first in the '06 draft next June, following in the footsteps of these two fabulous freshmen?
Ovechkin doesn't need to pour over any central scouting rankings to come up with the answer. In his mind, the overwhelming choice should be Phil Kessel of the University of Minnesota. End of story.
"He's the best," Ovechkin said of Kessel, the superbly skilled forward from Madison, Wisc. "He isn't afraid to attack and he can score whenever he touches the puck.
"I met him at the world junior championship in North Dakota last year and I was very impressed."
Scouts still rave about the electrifying moves unleashed at the world juniors last winter by Kessel, one of the youngest participants in the tournament.
Several months later, he continued to wow observers at the world under-18 championships in the Czech Republic, where his 16 points in six games reflected his dominance. U.S. teammate Nathan Gerbe and Russia's Ilia Zubov finished a distant second place in the scoring race with eight points.
After watching Kessel score twice to lead the Americans to the gold medal against Canada in the title game, Canadian coach Shawn Camp described him as "a guy who can dominate from shift to shift."
Kessel, 18, acquired a love of hockey at the grass roots level, learning the sport on the frozen ponds of central Wisconsin before joining organized leagues. To this day he credits his longtime coach Bob Suter, brother of former NHLer Gary Suter, for much of his development.
Now that he is playing bigtime collegiate hockey, Kessel is noticing an increase in the amount of publicity he is receiving. But he says it is nothing compared to the hype surrounding Crosby, a budding superstar Kessel admires.
"I don't know how Sidney does it with all that media coverage," Kessel said during a phone interview from Minnesota. "He has done a great job with it. It must be real tough on him to do that every day. If I had to do that, it would be hard."
Kessel might not have a choice. As the draft approaches, the number of notepads, cameras and microphones hunting him down are certain to increase.
"There has been some newspaper and TV interviews but nothing like Sidney is going through," said Kessel, who entered play yesterday tied for the team's scoring lead with 16 points."It's not like people are stopping me on the street.
"I don't think about the (draft) too much at this point. I just go out and play hockey. If I'm the No. 1 pick, then great, I'm the No. 1 pick. But I don't care where I play. It'll just be a dream to play in the National Hockey League."
As for Crosby, he has taken more than his share of abuse on the ice and criticism off it the past few days.
The Philadelphia media accused him of diving.
Don Cherry called for him to stop using theatrics while attempting to draw penalties.
And Flyers defenceman Derian Hatcher denied knocking out some of Crosby's teeth with a high stick last week.
Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock said blue-chip players like Crosby had better get accustomed to such treatment.
"Peter Forsberg is a target every game," Hitchcock said. "He got it pretty good against Atlanta. Three shots to the mouth and one shot to the visor.
"And the reason is, he's our scoring leader. That's the National Hockey League. When a player is leading in points, any player, it doesn't matter who he is or how old he is, he is going to receive attention ... any coach worth his salt is going to make sure that happens."
Will Sergei Fedorov be content in chilly Columbus after leaving the sun, surf and sand he loved in California?
Among the reasons Fedorov left Detroit as a free agent for Anaheim in the summer of 2003 was the warmer climate. The talented Russian forward believed it would keep him fresher and prolong his career.
"I know he wanted to be in Anaheim, or Los Angeles, and that's why he left Detroit," said Red Wings coach Mike Babcock, who coached Fedorov with the Mighty Ducks. "He'd been there (Detroit) his whole career, he must have wanted to go (to California). I don't know whether he had this planned, but that's part of this game. You go where they want you."
THE WEEK AHEAD
The Carolina Hurricanes tomorrow will attempt to beat the high-flying Ottawa Senators for the third consecutive time ... Meanwhile in Pittsburgh, Crosby and Ovechkin meet for the first time at the NHL level when the Penguins host the Washington Capitals ... The Hurricanes will seek retribution for their recent 9-0 thumping to Atlanta when they welcome the Thrashers to Tobacco Road on Sunday.