PITTSBURGH - While the Pittsburgh Penguins are groping for answers as they stumble to the finish line, the Washington Capitals are not ready to pronounce the Stanley Cup champions dead.
Despite sweeping the four-game regular-season series from Pittsburgh with Tuesday's commanding 6-3 victory at Mellon Arena, the Capitals don't feel like have solved the Penguins.
"I think playoffs is a whole new ballgame," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Everything gets ramped up and you forget about past everythings. I don't know if it is going to affect them. They are champions; they are Stanley Cup champions.
"It's nice that we did it and I'm glad we did it; but I don't think it will mean a hill of beans if we see them in the playoffs."
While it may mean very little in a postseason meeting between these two Eastern Conference superpowers, the Capitals sure gave the defending champions a good deal to think about in the final days of the 2009-10 regular season.
Washington won the four games by a cumulative score of 21-13 and used a tremendous amount of depth to do so. The Capitals received goals from three different lines on Tuesday night, and five different forwards scored. For the series, nine different players combined for Washington's 21 goals.
On this night, the Caps found an answer each time Pittsburgh pressured them. Three times, the Penguins made this a one-goal game and three times the Capitals answered -- quickly -- to restore the two-goal lead.
"That's something that kind of hurt us - we fought back a couple of times but they took that momentum away pretty quickly," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "I don't think it was a case of us sitting back. It was just what they did. They made the most of their chances, especially right after we would get back in the game."
Boudreau said Tuesday he believes his team is deeper than the one that lost to the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring; an excruciating seven-game loss that ended Washington's season far earlier than the Caps had hoped.
But depth is only good if the top line is going -- and that was certainly the case Tuesday night.
Alex Ovechkin broke out of his mini slump with a power-play goal early in the third period that restored Washington to a two-goal lead at 5-3, then he added an empty netter with :00.2 seconds left. First-line center Nicklas Backstrom finished with three assists and Mike Knuble, the right wing on that line, added a goal.
With the two goals, Ovechkin finished with seven in the four-game series against the Penguins; he also pulled into a tie with Crosby for the lead in the race for the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy.
Crosby scored a power-play goal in the first half of the second period to make the game 2-1 and give him 48 goals for the season and, for the briefest of moments, a two-goal lead in the race to finish atop the League's goals table.
But Ovi erased that lead with his predatory ways.
Pittsburgh had cut the Caps' edge to 4-3 on Jordan Leopold's second goal of the night -- also Crosby's third point of the night -- when Pittsburgh's Bill Guerin took a high-sticking penalty. Four seconds later, Ovechkin lit the lamp and ended the comeback.
Backstrom won the offensive-zone draw after the penalty and the puck pinballed to the top of the circle. Ovechkin beat everyone to the loose puck and fired a seeing-eye shot that eluded Brent Johnson, called in to replace starter Marc-Andre Fleury after Tomas Fleischmann's goal made it 3-1 at 6:42 of the second period.
"I think that power-play goal give me more breath," said Ovechkin, who had just two goals in his past 11 games and only four since the Olympic break. "I didn't score like three or four games, but I had lots of chances to score and they didn't go in. Finally, one goes in and I felt pretty good. The last 10 minutes, I felt great out there."
Ovechkin now has a fighter's chance to defend his back-to-back Richard Trophy titles. Both Ovechkin and Crosby have 48 goals, although Crosby has one more game to play. TampaBay's Steven Stamkos also scored Tuesday and has 47 goals and three games remaining.
Crosby was the only bright spot Tuesday night for a Penguins team that is looking for answers in many areas.
Not only is Crosby fighting for the Richard Trophy, but he figured in all three of Pittsburgh's goals and now has 100 points on the season. During a second-period stoppage in play, the sellout crowd at Mellon Arena -- which will host the final regular-season game of its existence on Thursday night -- serenaded their captain with sustained chants of "MVP, MVP, MVP."
Crosby's biggest individual rival was clearly impressed by Sid's showing.
"I think Crosby played unbelievable tonight," Ovechkin said. "He just showed how good he is and he just showed his leadership."
But unlike Ovechkin, Crosby had little help.
He was the only Pittsburgh forward to score Tuesday night -- defenseman Jordan Leopold accounted for the other two goals. Fleury was pulled after allowing three goals on just 12 shots and both Guerin and defenseman Kris Letang went minus-3 on the night as two of 10 Pens to finish with minus ratings in the game.
Not only will this loss be a cause for some soul-searching in the Pittsburgh dressing room during the regular season's final five days; but it also dealt a blow to their hopes of claiming the Atlantic Division crown and the top-three seed that goes along with that honor. The New Jersey Devils beat Atlanta 3-0 to open up a two-point lead in the division race. The Devils, who won all six games against Pittsburgh this season, hold the tie breaker against Pittsburgh if the teams are tied in points and wins at the conclusion of the season -- as they were before Tuesday's action began.
Yet despite the questions that linger over the Penguins after this latest performance, the Capitals are quick to point out that it will mean nothing if these two teams cross paths in the postseason again.
"They are a great team and they are going to be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs," Bradley said. "The playoffs are a whole new game and they are a dangerous team. They're obviously proven winners."