The future begins now

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby faces fellow rookie Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals...

Penguins forward Sidney Crosby faces fellow rookie Alexander Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals for the first time this year in Pittsburgh. (Ottawa Sun File Photo/Sean Kilpatrick)

MIKE ZEISBERGER -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:30 AM ET

PITTSBURGH -- Sidney Crosby exhibited admirable maturity while addressing the media yesterday, refusing to allow the stitches in his upper lip to hinder him from responding to questions volleyed his way.

At the same time, just inches below his painful gash, the teenage stubble growing from his chin should remind us all that Sid the Kid is still just that -- a boy.

Even if he doesn't play like one.

When we watch the highlights of Crosby and his fellow flashy freshman, Alexander Ovechkin, consistently humiliating NHL goaltenders almost twice their ages, we forget sometimes just how young they are.

Instead, we want to be mesmerized by their talents.

We want them to be the poster boys for the "new" NHL.

And we want them to accept the torches passed on by Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, two of the greatest performers the sport has known.

Why else would the swelling hype here in Pittsburgh compare tonight's first NHL meeting between Crosby and Ovechkin to the many memorable encounters between No. 99 and No. 66 over the years?

BOY WONDER

It is a suggestion that is perhaps a bit premature in the youthful eyes of the Penguins' Boy Wonder.

"We're only 20 games into our rookie season," Crosby said, surveying the all-too-familiar sea of cameras and microphones. "I think we're both enjoying the experience and trying to get better but we still have a long way to go before we can be compared to Lemieux versus Gretzky.

"I think we both realize that."

So does Lemieux, Crosby's teammate, boss and landlord.

Crosby leads the Penguins in scoring with 25 points, five more than Super Mario. But that hardly gives him carte blanche to run roughshod at Mario's home, where Crosby is living this season.

Asked about reports that Crosby is not allowed to have overnight guests, Lemieux replied, "That's up to him."

Lemieux then broke into a mischievous grin.

"He knows what the rules are," The Magnificent One said.

Therein lies the difference.

Budding stars have curfews.

Legends set those curfews.

Budding stars post big numbers in one season.

Legends post big numbers for many seasons.

The key element here? Time.

Lemieux versus Gretzky? Not yet.

Maybe one day, Lemieux admitted. In the meantime, everyone should take a breath, sit back and enjoy watching Ovechkin's Capitals and Crosby's Penguins do battle at Mellon Arena.

"Any time you have young guys like this going at it early in their careers, I think it's great for the game," Lemieux said. "It should be an exciting night for all of us involved."

Lemieux does not remember much about the first time he faced Gretzky other than "we probably lost.

"I was very excited to play against Gretz. I grew up watching him, emulating him on the ice. It was much like first time I played against Guy Lafleur.

"But these guys (Crosby and Ovechkin) are pretty much the same age, so it's a bit different."

Although Crosby and Team Canada thumped Ovechkin's Russians in the gold-medal game of the world junior championship 10 months ago, the two never have spoken. But even without conversing, both are aware that they are constantly being compared to each other.

"Here you have two first overall picks," Crosby said. "We've played each other before. He has had a great start to the season.

"I think there is competitiveness in both of us. It comes from wanting to be better, wanting to be the best. I'm sure he works hard. You don't get here by fluke."

FIRE INSIDE OVECHKIN

The fire inside Ovechkin, 20, is very evident. When asked two weeks ago about Crosby being named October's NHL rookie of the month, the hard-hitting left winger said, "It's a long season. We'll see who's better."

The young Capital was singing a similar tune yesterday.

"I feel no pressure," Ovechkin said. "It's just a game against Pittsburgh. But everyone is making a big thing about me and Sidney.

"We must play hard, both of us, for our teams. We will see who plays better."

So who is better?

In surveying a number of scouts the past few weeks, the best answer probably came from former NHLer Peter Mahovlich.

"That's like asking who you would pick between Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier," Mahovlich said. "Crosby has that sixth sense on the ice like Gretz did. He sees the ice so well and he's a great skater. Ovechkin's like Mess, a power forward who will knock you on your butt, take the puck away and score."

For the record, Gretzky (1,921) and Messier (1,075) rank one-two on the NHL's career points list. Crosby and Ovechkin have a long way to go to reach those lofty heights.

But at least it should be a fun ride, starting tonight.


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