WASHINGTON - For a guy who supposedly shies from the limelight, Sidney Crosby was as good as could be in the first Game 7 of his career.
The rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins were pretty close to perfect, too. Crosby scored twice to raise his NHL-leading playoff goal total to 12, his teammates shut down his big rival, Alex Ovechkin, most of the night, and the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals 6-2 on Wednesday to reach the Eastern Conference final for the second consecutive season.
Crosby "won't say he likes front and centre, the big stage, or anything like that," Penguins forward Bill Guerin said. "But he really knows how to perform in it."
That's for sure.
Still, Crosby took no outward pleasure in coming out ahead in the second-round series otherwise known as Sid the Kid versus Alexander the Great.
"It feels good, just because of the way the series went," Crosby said, "not particularly because it was me and him."
Everyone chipped in for the Penguins, from the stars to the second thoughts, from regular-season scoring leader Evgeni Malkin's two assists, to fourth-line forward Craig Adams' first goal in 42 career post-season games. Second-year defenceman Kris Letang, 38-year-old Guerin and Jordan Staal scored, too. Marc-Andre Fleury made 19 saves and didn't allow a goal until his team led 5-0.
Indeed, plenty of Penguins considered the key moment Fleury's nerve-testing save on two-time NHL goal leader Ovechkin on a breakaway all of 3:01 into a still-scoreless game.
"That sends your team a message right away," Crosby said. "It allows you to calm down a little."
Even Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said: "It didn't seem like we had a lot of emotion, but if Alex would have put that one in on the breakaway, who knows? It might have been a different story."
Perhaps. But the Penguins dominated at both ends, and needed less than 22 1/2 minutes to forge a four-goal lead that moved Boudreau to switch goalies.
"We were surprised" at how easy things went, Malkin said.
Pittsburgh's 4-3 series victory after trailing 2-0 moves it closer to a second consecutive trip to the Stanley Cup final, something the team last did in 1991 and 1992. The Penguins will face the Bruins or Hurricanes, who play their second-round Game 7 at Boston on Thursday night.
For the Capitals, the setback extends some dispiriting trends. They are 2-6 in Game 7s, including 0-3 against the Penguins. And they have lost seven of eight playoff series against Pittsburgh - including four times after Washington held a two-game lead.
The NHL boasted that it's the first time since 2001 three conference semifinals went the distance, and the league, its TV partners and fans had to be excited about the potential drama on tap Wednesday. In addition to all of the big names on the ice, there was this: Five of the series' first six games were decided by one goal - and three went to overtime.
"I can't describe the ups and downs of the series," Crosby said.
Nothing but ups for his team on this night, in part because Pittsburgh scored two goals eight seconds apart in the first period. And just kept on scoring.
Crosby put the visitors ahead 1-0 with a power-play goal about 7 1/2 minutes in from his favourite spot on the ice: the net's doorstep. He assisted on Pittsburgh's third goal, then added something of a finishing touch with another power-play goal in the third period. Crosby stole the puck from his rival, Ovechkin, before beating Varlamov's replacement, Jose Theodore, to make it 6-1.
That truly was an unimaginable margin in this tight series: Entering Wednesday, the teams were tied or separated by one goal 92 per cent of the time. Neither team had led by three goals at any point in Games 1-6.
"It just hurts," Ovechkin said. "I don't want to talk about me, personally. It's all about team."
His goal in the second period, too late to mean anything, allowed Ovechkin to finish the series with 14 points - one more than Crosby and the first time an NHL player reached that total since 1995. But that's little consolation, of course.
When the game ended, Crosby and Ovechkin met at centre ice for the customary post-series handshakes. They've traded hits on the ice and trash talk off it this season, yet both said the right things Wednesday.
"I just said, 'Great series.' There was a lot of eyes on the series," Crosby said. "It was a battle for both teams. Individually, we both wanted to make sure we did a great job."
And what did Ovechkin tell Crosby, his predecessor as league MVP?
"I just wished him good luck," Ovechkin said, "and told him to win the Stanley Cup."
Notes: Boudreau said Ovechkin and Mike Green played with injuries. ... The most lopsided score in a Game 7 in NHL history is Detroit's 7-0 victory over Colorado in the 2002 Western Conference finals, according to STATS LLC. ... Penguins D Sergei Gonchar had an assist in his return to the lineup after being sidelined by a knee injury since a hit by Ovechkin in the first period of Game 4. Ovechkin apologized when they spoke after Game 7.