CHICAGO - Linemates in pursuit of an Olympic goal medal, rivals for the Stanley Cup, the Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews and the Flyers' Mike Richards are team captains, first-line centers, centerpiece kinds of players. People who suggest that they are mirror images of each other miss the point, but, as Richards said, "I'll take that as a compliment."

Toews is bigger - 6-2 and 210 pounds - while Richards is listed at 5-11 and 195 pounds, but honestly doesn't look either that big or that heavy. Toews is 22, Richards is 25. Toews had 25 goals in the regular season and 68 points, Richards had 31 goals and 62 points.

Both young, Canadians, captains, linemates on the gold-medal team's checking line only 3 months ago - the one-on-one comparisons, however incomplete, are ready-made as Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals is now upon us.

"Yeah, you know, that's the way it is sometimes," Toews said. "The story line could change after Game 1. Everyone seems to want to talk about certain things at the same time. Right now, that might be one of the hot topics.

"I definitely understand that it goes beyond just two players, one on each team. I'm not letting something like that bother me right now."

Richards is most likely to draw the toughest defensive assignment of the series - meaning Toews, when the Flyers can manage it. Meanwhile, there is a chance Dave Bolland will take the tougher defensive matchup when the Blackhawks get their way with the line changes - meaning he will chase Richards, leaving Toews with relatively easier duty.

Still, they will see plenty of each other, and the comparisons will be made.

"I think that's just a small part of it," Toews said. "You look at our teams up and down. There's so many similarities as far as skilled players, defensive players, goaltenders, things that we've been through as far as injuries and adversity as a team.

"We've both worked very, very hard to get to this place. I think they are feeling equally as confident as a team as we are right now. That's what is going to make it so exciting for the fans to watch this series."

Richards says he sees Toews as "tenacious" and "nonstop" and "hockey 24/7." Toews sees Richards as "a guy who doesn't take anything for granted - he works for everything."

The same guy, but different.

"You get the sense that [Richards] is one of those players that's competitive, and it doesn't matter whether he's playing defense or offense. He's going to make you work for everything you get against him."

The two have become friends, but that is just one more part of their lives that they will have to put on hold here, for seven games or fewer. *