was still feeling his way into NHL action when he registered a pair of assists in his first two games back from missing more than six weeks with a high ankle sprain.
He returned to form Sunday afternoon, lifting the Pittsburgh Penguins
the way superstars do.
Crosby twice gave the Penguins the lead – the second time on a fluke goal with 28 seconds left in regulation – and they claimed a 4-2 victory over the Washington Capitals
at Verizon Center.
Crosby was credited with the winning goal, his 22nd of the season, on a play that originated when his shot was stopped by Cristobal Huet
. Caps rookie Nicklas Backstrom
, apparently trying to clear the puck or push it over to Huet, instead swatted it past the stunned goaltender and into the net.
’s empty-net goal with 13 seconds left sealed the victory for the Penguins, now one point behind New Jersey for first in the Atlantic Division.
“We’ve been on the other side of that before. Obviously, it’s not fun,” Crosby said of the unfortunate play that cost the Caps. “It’s a big break for us.”
Washington remained seven points behind first-place Carolina in the Southeast Division and trails Philadelphia by six points for the eighth and final playoff spot in the East. The Caps were coming off a 2-1 loss Saturday to Boston in which they let the lead slip away in the final five minutes, and this was another tough one for Bruce Boudreau
and his troops to swallow.
“That was officially heartbreaking,” Boudreau said. “I feel bad for Nick. He was doing everything that he could and ends up shooting it in his own net.”
Alexander Ovechkin assisted on power-play goals by Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin to increase his League-leading points total to 95, but he was once again foiled by Crosby, as the
Penguins improved to 10-1 against the Capitals when both players are in the lineup.
Petr Sykora also scored for Pittsburgh and Evgeni Malkin reached 92 points by assisting on three goals. But the big story was Crosby notching his first two goals since he had a pair at Atlanta on Jan. 12. Six days later, Crosby was injured early in a home game against Tampa Bay and missed his first significant amount of time as an NHL player.
“I’m not where I want to be,” Crosby said. “But I’m getting a better feel for things. The first couple of games, conditioning-wise, I wasn't there.”
Penguins coach Michel Therrien wants Crosby to take his time getting comfortable and said they talked earlier Sunday about “little things to help him to get his game better.”
“There’s no athlete that could come back to competition after such a long time being out of the game,” Therrien said. “There’s no doubt tonight that was the best performance I’ve seen since he’s been back.”
It wasn’t a bad effort by Marc-Andre Fleury, who made only his fourth start since returning from an ankle injury of his own. Fleury, pulled from his last outing against Florida, stopped 36 shots, including 20 in the second period alone.
After a scoreless first, the teams traded leads in a wide-open second. Laich got the Capitals started at 7:23 by redirecting Semin’s shot on the power play for his 17th of the season.
It took just 1:19 before Sykora scored his 22nd and drew the Penguins even. Off an odd-man rush, quick passes by Jeff Taffe and Malkin set up Sykora’s shot, which went in despite Laich getting his stick on the puck.
Crosby put Pittsburgh ahead for the first time with 1:52 left in the second, putting a rebound under Huet, who finished with 22 saves. Semin tied it just 14 seconds before intermission with Washington skating on a 5-on-3 advantage.
Huet stood tall in the third, when the Penguins enjoyed a 13-5 advantage in shots, and looked poised to get the Capitals to overtime and earn at least a point in the standings. It wasn’t to be, and after a lost weekend Washington’s playoff picture looks uncertain.
“Obviously, it puts a damper on it,” Boudreau said. “We still have a goal in mind of how many games we've had to win to get in the playoffs. Now we give ourselves less chance of error, that's all.”
Material from wire services and team media was used in this report.