PITTSBURGH - Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are two of the world's best hockey players, fellow Russians who became millionaires by their early 20s, former Olympic team roommates and the NHL's top two scorers last season.
But the one-time friends have become cold-as-ice rivals, and their on-ice feud has grown increasingly nasty. Last season, the Penguins' Malkin ducked just in time to avoid a hard drive into the boards from the Capitals' Ovechkin.
The ugliness has moved off the ice, too, with Ovechkin reportedly taking a swing at Malkin's agent in Moscow.
''Ovechkin is a great player, but every time he hits me - I don't know why,'' Malkin said.
Ovechkin has defended his play by saying that he hits hard against every opponent, although he does not have a reputation among his fellow NHL players for regularly throwing his body around.
Malkin and Ovechkin face each other again Wednesday night, and Malkin's Pittsburgh teammate, captain Sidney Crosby, said the Penguins will protect their teammate. It is the second game of a back-to-back for the Penguins, who played Tuesday night in Philadelphia.
''It's a different scenario because you usually don't see that,'' Crosby said, referring to one elite player taking what appeared to be a deliberate run at another. ''Guys on our team have to make sure we stick together and Geno (Malkin) has to make sure he sticks up for himself.''
If he does, the top two players in the league last season could be in for what is known in hockey as a Gordie Howe hat trick - a goal, an assist and a fight.
What observers can't understand is how two good friends became enemies in so short a time. Only three years ago, they roomed together in Turin at the Winter Olympics, and the two were often seen together off the ice, hanging out, shopping, taking in the Italian sights.
Neither the 23-year-old Ovechkin, last year's NHL scoring champion and MVP, nor the 22-year-old Malkin, this season's scoring leader, will say what went wrong. Two years ago, Russian hockey websites were filled with reports that Ovechkin took a swing at Malkin's Russian agent, Gennady Ushakov, in a Moscow nightclub.
Ovechkin denied the story but in a November interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Malkin said it happened, calling it a ''bad situation.''
With the Vancouver Games only 13 months away, the testiness between the two is causing some anxiety for Russian hockey officials. Russia will be an underdog on Canada's home ice and badly needs its two biggest stars playing together if it hopes to win a gold medal.
The NHL has stayed out of the dispute so far, but no doubt doesn't want either of its stars to be injured because of a personal disagreement.
After Wednesday's game, the Capitals and Penguins play again on Feb. 22 and March 8 in Washington, so there's plenty of time for the feud to end or grow worse.
When Washington rallied from three goals down to win 4-3 in Pittsburgh on Oct. 16, Ovechkin didn't score but appeared to go out of his way to hit Malkin at any opportunity.
''We'll stick up (for Malkin), like you would for any teammate,'' Crosby said. ''They're intense, physical games and as long as that's the way they stay, that's safe. But if there's deliberate intent to hurt someone, you kind of step outside the line a bit, you have to make sure you stick up for your teammate.''
The Penguins felt that happened in a Jan. 21 game last season, when Ovechkin lined up Malkin near the rear boards and took a long run at him from Malkin's blind side. Malkin ducked out of the way, causing Ovechkin to slam sideways into the boards.
''I mean, he's got run a couple of times,'' Crosby said. ''The (Oct. 16) game here, I think he made a few runs at Geno and Geno handled it the right way. Geno's focused on playing and he shouldn't get caught up with that.''