WASHINGTON -- In preparing for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Washington Capitals were in the midst of experiencing a swift reversal of fortune.
Between Dec. 4 and Jan. 14, Washington's 14-1-4 record was the NHL's best. The Capitals followed that stretch by losing four straight (0-3-1), a slump that exposed flaws previously masked by their success.
The Capitals certainly welcomed a game against a longstanding rival to work through their struggles, doing so in a 4-0 victory against the Penguins at Verizon Center on Wednesday.
"There's a lot of positives to take out of that game," said goaltender Braden Holtby, who had a 27-save shutout. "That's something we needed tonight after the last few games. It was a great effort. It's one of those things, we seem to play really well against the really good teams. Now we have to find a way to make sure we're playing that way against everyone. There's a lot of positives and a lot of things we can take out of it to improve our game in the future.”
Alex Ovechkin scored twice for Washington (25-14-9), overtaking New York Rangers forward Rick Nash and Dallas Stars forward Tyler Seguin for the NHL goal-scoring lead with 29. He has 13 goals in his past 13 games.
"Up and down the lineup, I thought we played with a lot of purpose, a lot of order," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said. "We had a plan and we worked the plan. That was more of the team that I'm used to seeing."
Eric Fehr and Mike Green also scored for the Capitals, who trail the Penguins by three points for second place in the Metropolitan Division. Washington has trimmed that deficit by nine points since Dec. 4.
"It just comes down to focus and preparation," Green said. "We had the right mindset tonight and we proved it on the ice. That's one thing is being focused, but going out there and actually executing is the other."
In his return from a lower-body injury, Penguins captain Sidney Crosby skated 19:42 with three shots on goal. He lost 17 of 24 faceoffs.
Pittsburgh (27-13-8) has not scored in two games against Washington this season.
"We had a few opportunities, but we need to create more if we want to win a game," Crosby said. "We just didn't do that, so ultimately it comes down to us and finding ways to either [get] guys in front or make plays. But we've got to compete more. … It was a fairly close game throughout until the second half of the third [period] there, but we didn't generate enough, obviously, to score [and] to gain enough momentum pretty consistently. Just for whatever reason, [we] didn't execute."
Among the Capitals' identified problem areas as of late was puck management. A strong offensive-zone effort led to their first goal.
After Nicklas Backstrom retrieved the puck from Jay Beagle near the right half-wall, he sent a cross-ice pass to Karl Alzner at the left point. Alzner flung the puck toward the net, where Ovechkin deflected it underneath Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's right arm at 4:50 of the first period.
"I think we played well all 60 minutes, right from the start," Ovechkin said. "First goal was huge. … We didn't give them much. [Holtby] played unbelievable. We kind of bounced back how we needed."
With Washington on the power play late in the second period, Ovechkin received a set-up pass from Green and shot a one-timer from his customary left-circle position past Fleury at 17:19 for his League-leading 13th power-play goal of the season. It gave Ovechkin his 93rd career multi-goal game, tying Peter Bondra for the Capitals record.
"I thought coming [into] the second period, it played out the same way [as the first period]," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "It was hard for us to generate, but it wasn't like we were giving up a lot. Then that power play goal [by Ovechkin], I thought was a key goal for them. They got some momentum off the two power plays in the second period."
In the third period, Fehr scored his 15th goal of the season at 11:02 when Washington's third line applied heavy pressure in the offensive zone. Fehr scooped up a loose puck and beat Fleury in tight. Green scored his fifth shortly after at 12:24, finishing a 2-on-1 with Evgeny Kuznetsov.
"Second half of the season, every game is getting so important, especially in our own division," Backstrom said. "We are playing a good team and we also wanted to bounce back after [a 4-3 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Tuesday]. … Right from the start, we came out hard and we worked, [we] worked as a team. We played physical and that paid off. We scored a big goal in the first period and another one in the second. Overall, we played a really good 60-minute game. We didn't allow them too many chances, I don't think, and obviously Holtby was great in the net. I think, overall, a really good team effort from everyone."