WASHINGTON - The NHL wanted to provide plenty of Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin by moving the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals into the same division.
The league couldn't separate them again fast enough for the Capitals given the Penguins' recent domination.
Pittsburgh beat Washington 4-0 on Wednesday night at Verizon Center, the fifth straight victory in the series, to maintain first place in the Metropolitan Division. Barring a sudden and unexpected change of structure, the Capitals would love to start finding answers as to why the Penguins have their number.
"Based off tonight we know we have some work to do in order to rebound our next game against them," Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. "We feel we have the players in here that are capable of beating them. It's just a matter of putting together a 60-minute game where we're all on the same page and doing things we need to do to win."
Instead, the Penguins did just about everything necessary to blow Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals out of their own building. They jumped out to a strong start, got two points apiece from Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and a shutout from lightly tested goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 18 saves.
"I think this was as complete a game as we played," Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said. "We came out and pushed the pace, the speed of the game. ... The second half of the game was a team effort: how we played the game, managed the puck and shut them down."
Bylsma used the word "smothering" to describe his team's all-around defensive effort. The Penguins outshot the Capitals 40-18 overall and perhaps more importantly 34-10 at even strength.
Washington at one point had a 9:22 shot drought and midway through the game put more pucks on net short-handed than five-on-five. That's not typically a path to success, and Capitals coach Adam Oates blamed an overall lack of execution.
"Obviously you have to give them some credit, they played a very good hockey game," Oates said. "We got behind early and (it's a) tough team to catch up (against), and they didn't give us anything."
Getting ahead and clamping down was something the Penguins took a great deal of pride in. Crosby, who passed St. Louis Blues forward Alex Steen to take sole possession of the NHL points lead with a power-play goal and an assist, pointed to the strong start as something that set the tone for the whole night.
That Pittsburgh (14-8-0) started well was not a surprise, but they had something tangible to show for it when defenceman Paul Martin beat Holtby with a seemingly-harmless shot from the blue-line just 6:38 into the game. Rookie Beau Bennett made it 2-0 a few minutes later, and the Penguins went into the first intermission with a 17-6 shot advantage despite the Capitals spending over four minutes on the power play.
"I don't know if we expect to hop out to that kind of shot advantage, but certainly the pace and how we played was excellent," Bylsma said. "We got some real good scoring opportunities."
The Capitals got some of their own in what Crosby called a "50/50" second period. The teams traded chances back and forth, like when Fleury stopped a driving Ovechkin and Holtby, who finished with 36 saves, denied Crosby from point-blank range soon after.
But when Washington couldn't break through, the Penguins made the best of a late second-period power play. Malkin controlled the puck along the boards before setting into motion quick passes from Chris Kunitz to James Neal to Crosby, who scored from an almost-impossible angle at the side of the net.
"It's high execution, it's great movement, set up there to start by Geno," Bylsma said. "It's a sharp, sharp angle, but it's an awesome power-play goal."
By the time Neal made it 4-0 in the third period, the Penguins were well on their way to locking things down and building a three-point lead atop the Metropolitan Division.
It was the kind of loss the Capitals want to just throw out after winning seven of 10 going into Wednesday night.
"That was a pretty ugly game, and it might just be one of those ones that we need to forget," defenceman Karl Alzner said. "The only reason we'd watch (the tape) maybe is to look and see how bad we were."
Plenty was built into this game, with first place on the line. It was the first time the Penguins and Capitals were facing each other as division rivals since 1993.
Fleury, who recorded his 25th career shutout and second this season, took more joy in holding on to first than beating the Capitals.
"It's always a good rivalry with them, but the thing we have to focus on is the win," he said.
During their five-game winning streak against Washington, the Penguins have scored 21 goals to the Capitals' nine. They've also won the past five games Crosby has played in dating to 2011.
Worried about now, Oates was less concerned about the standings than about what the loss felt like.
"It's more of a measuring stick," he said. "You're playing against your rival, it's a big game and that's part of being a pro. Hopefully it deflates you right because you know it's a deflating feeling in there right now."
NOTES ????????? Malkin's career-worst goal drought reached 15 games, but he finished with two assists to make it 19 on the season. ... Washington defenceman Mike Green missed his third straight game with a lower-body injury. He could return Friday when the Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens. ... The Capitals' power play, which entered the game ranked second in the league, went 0 for 3.