WASHINGTON - Games between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins have been a big deal ever since Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby began leading their teams into the NHL's elite. Toss in the anticipation for the NHL's marquee regular-season event on Jan. 1 -- and the excitement generated by an HBO documentary series following the two clubs -- and their first meeting of the season had nearly unreachable expectations.
And yet Thursday night's game was even better than the buildup.
Sidney Crosby extended his scoring streak to 23 games with a goal and an assist, Marc-Andre Fleury made 32 saves and Pascal Dupuis scored in the seventh round of the shootout to propel the Penguins to a 3-2 victory at a raucous Verizon Center on Thursday night in the latest chapter of this fierce rivalry.
"You talk about the hype and the buildup and the rivalry and then the puck drops and it is exactly what the buildup is," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "You think sometimes these games are overbilled, but this was a playoff-type game -- the building was rocking and (there were) a lot of ups and downs in that game and a lot of emotion not to disappoint the fans."
Michal Neuvirth made 25 saves for the Capitals, including one on a second-period penalty shot by Evgeni Malkin. Mike Green had a power-play goal after several chances with the man advantage and Mike Knuble sent the game to overtime with a shorthanded tally goal in the third period.
The loss snapped a two-game winning streak for the Capitals, but aside from some missed chances with the extra man there was little to quibble with about their effort. Washington coach Bruce Boudreau used words like "barometer" and "test" on multiple occasions leading up to this game, and the Capitals had to be happy with how they measured up against the team that now leads the NHL with 50 points.
"I think we played great," said Alex Ovechkin, who finished with five shots on goal, five hits and a gorgeous goal in the first round of the shootout. "I think all four lines did [a] great job. We don't make mistakes, finish checks, get [pucks] deep, have lots of shots. I know Fleury played unbelievable today. They are great players - they have a chance [and] they use it. We have to use our chances."
Crosby put the Penguins in front with a crafty deflection of Kris Letang's point shot at 3:21 of the opening period, giving him the longest point-scoring streak since Mats Sundin's 30-gamer in 1992-93. Pittsburgh then held the lead for more than 30 minutes almost entirely because of the great work by Fleury and the Penguins' penalty killers. Washington needed six chances with the extra man - including nearly five minutes against three men (either 5-on-3 or 4-on-3) - before the Capitals could get the equalizer.
Green finally beat Fleury one second after a two-man advantage for 1:51 expired, as plenty of zone time and crisp passing wore down the Penguins' defenders and allowed him to find room at the top of the hash marks for a wrister.
Pittsburgh entered the game with the top-rated penalty kill in the League and showed why against Washington's elite offensive players.
"Guys were doing a great job," Crosby said. "It would have been a much different start if we didn't kill those off and they got a couple. It was a big, big part of the game."
After Crosby helped the Penguins back into the lead with a great individual effort that led to a rebound goal by Chris Kunitz 17 seconds into the third period, Knuble tied it with a shorthanded goal at 14:31 to force overtime. Letang whiffed in the neutral zone, leading to a 2-on-1 for the Capitals. Brooks Laich led Knuble with a perfect pass and he was able to slip it through Fleury's legs for his eighth goal of the season and fifth in the past 11 games.
Fleury made a highlight-reel save on Green during the overtime. Ovechkin and Letang scored in the first round of the shootout, and both goaltenders were perfect until Dupuis snapped a shot into the top right corner to end another classic battle between these two franchises.
"[Fleury] was outstanding," Bylsma said. "Sharp on the penalty kill against some point-blankers but even on some of the pucks on rushes that were shooting through traffic - he was sharp at picking those off as well. That's not to mention the save on Green in the overtime, which was outrageous and then the shootout."
Added Crosby: "He came up big. Without him and his play, that is a much different outcome. At the start, at the end, all the way through - he was a big part of us finding a way to win tonight. It is too bad we couldn't capitalize on one of those power plays in the third. That would have been big for us to get the next one, but he did a great job of keeping us in there."
If Crosby or Fleury wasn't the star of this clash, then Green certainly was. The two-time Norris Trophy finalist has struggled with injuries this season and isn't producing offense at his typical rate.
Green looked more like one of the top defensemen in the League on this night. He logged more than 34 minutes of ice time - in part because Tom Poti was injured midway through the first period and didn't return - and finished with a goal, six shots on net, eight hits and five blocked shots.
It was clearly part of Pittsburgh's plan to be physical with him, and Green was on the end of several punishing hits but was still Washington's most dynamic player on this night.
"That was his best game in a long time," Boudreau said. "He was good defensively and he jumped into the plays and made things happen offensively."
Added Green: "By the end of the game you get pretty tired with the amount of minutes being played, but sometimes it's easier to play when you are always on the ice. You just get into the flow of things and you see things and create things. Sometimes it's better, but it's definitely more tiring when a man goes down."
So now these two teams will go their separate ways for a week. The Capitals have games in Carolina and at home to Montreal while the Penguins have trips to Ottawa and Long Island sandwiched around a home game against Atlanta before the two clubs will both arrive in Pittsburgh on Dec. 30 for the Bridgestone NHL Winter Classic two days later.
There will be another episode of "24/7" on HBO between now and then, and the hype and anticipation for the Winter Classic will continue to build. And yet somehow, it is probably a good bet these two teams will deliver again nine days from now.
"I think tonight was a good sign of what's to come on the first [of January]," Penguins forward Mike Rupp said. "I think it is because both teams are so good and any turnover can lead to offense. It kind of keeps you on the edge of your seat. You don't know when the next goal is going to be. It can look like a harmless play and next thing you know it is in the back of the net. It is fun to play in, but at the same time it shows how important it is to manage the puck and put it in the right places."
Added Bylsma: "You almost wish this one was the outdoor game. It is a prelude for sure, but every time these teams get together with these players there seems to be a clash of unique skill and talent and these teams going head-to-head. I expect we'll something very similar on January 1."