By REED ALBERGOTTI

For the National Hockey League, hope has come in the form of a 23-year-old Russian with a scraggly beard, a missing tooth, and a nose bent beyond recognition.

Alex Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals left-wing superstar, is facing off in a nail-biting playoff with his bitter rival Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins. The matchup, billed by the NHL as hockey's version of Magic Johnson versus Larry Bird, has lived up to the hype with both players scoring a blizzard of goals in the series in dramatic fashion. The Capitals lead the best-of-seven series, 2-1, heading into Friday night's game. The winner will advance to the Eastern Conference finals, which is one round away from the Stanley Cup finals.

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