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Ovechkin, Caps prevail as rivalry hits next level @NHLdotcom

Dan Rosen | Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, eat your hearts out.

Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby have a real mano-a-mano rivalry now and Washington's superstar has the early advantage.

Ovechkin and Crosby each notched hat tricks Monday night, but the Capitals' superstar did one better than his counterpart from Pittsburgh by bringing the house down with what proved to be the game-winning goal late in the third period, sending his team to a 4-3 victory and a 2-0 lead in this best-of-7 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal round series.

Game 3 is Wednesday night at Mellon Arena and the hockey world is waiting for an encore.

"It's everything the media has made it out to be, a battle of the two best players in hockey, and tonight they both carried their teams," Capitals defenseman Mike Green said. "We were fortunate that Alex was at the top of his game."

As soon as the Carolina Hurricanes completed their magical 80-second run against the New Jersey Devils a week ago Tuesday, the world began hyping this series between the Penguins and the Capitals as a battle of superstars, the showdown the NHL has been waiting for since both players entered the League in 2005.

Let's just say it's living up to its top billing. Each superstar already has four goals and a hat trick.

"It's good for the fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other," Ovechkin said. "It's an interesting time and an interesting game. It's unbelievable when you play against great players and you win a game like this."

Ovechkin won it by putting the Capitals on his back in the third period and carrying them to a victory.

He scored his first goal 2:18 into the second period, exactly 15 minutes and 40 seconds after Crosby gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead 6:38 into the first period. Ovechkin beat Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with a one-timer off a slick pass from Viktor Kozlov.

Crosby, who scored his first goal on the power play after camping out in front of Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, got the temporary edge on Ovechkin with his second goal of the night and seventh of the playoffs at 10:57 of the second period to put the Penguins back in front.

As with his other goals on the night, Crosby got in front of Varlamov and banged home a rebound for dirty goal No. 2. The puck was in the air, probably about 10 inches off the ice, and Crosby batted it in.

"I'm sure it's entertaining for people to watch," Crosby said of this classic duel.

However, the difference between Ovechkin and Crosby on Monday night was No. 8 got some help from his friends whereas No. 87 did not.

Less than five minutes after Crosby made it 2-1, David Steckel scored his second goal in as many games by slamming the puck through Fleury's five-hole at 15:49 of the second period. The initial shot came from Tyler Sloan, but it appeared to ricochet of Kris Letang and went right to Steckel, who was camped near the right post.

After that brief interlude from Steckel, the Sid and Ovie show continued.

It's too bad it had to end.

"It's fantastic," Steckel said. "It's great hockey."

Ovechkin struck again with a power-play goal at the 12:53 mark that put the Capitals ahead, 3-2. Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive-zone faceoff back to Green, who shoveled the puck across to Ovechkin for a laser of a one-timer.

The low shot snuck between Fleury's pads and the fanatical red-clad Verizon Center crowd of 18,277 launched into an "MVP, MVP, MVP" chant.

"It's unbelievable feeling when you see how the fans react, how the fans go crazy," Ovechkin said. "The atmosphere right now, it's unbelievable in town."

Just 2 minutes and 29 seconds later, Ovechkin scored again when he ripped a shot over Fleury's glove while using Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar as a screen.

The score was 4-2 now and hundreds of hats flew out of the stands onto the ice. There were so many, in fact, that Crosby admitted to asking the official if the P.A. announcer could ask the fans to stop throwing the hats onto the ice so the game could resume.

"This was the most important game and for [Ovechkin] to do what he did is unbelievable," Green said.

But the celebration couldn't start until the Capitals held the Penguins off for the final 31 seconds after Crosby completed his hat trick.

Even Ovechkin had an inkling Crosby wasn't finished putting on his show yet.

"That team never gives up," Ovechkin said.

They don't because Crosby is their leader, and he scored his third goal of the night to complete his first career playoff hat trick with 30.4 seconds left on the clock. Crosby took four whacks at the puck before finally beating Varlamov for his second power-play goal.

It wasn't enough to beat Ovechkin and the Capitals, but it's fair to assume that the final score of Game 2 won't be the prevailing topic of discussion around the offices and factories Tuesday morning.

Sid vs. Ovie. This is the real deal.

Sorry Wayne. Sorry Mario.

"When you build that hype of superstars playing against each other and then the superstars play like superstars, it's a neat thing, fun to talk about," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Not too many people can do what they did tonight."

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This one goes to four players, including Washington goalie Simeon Varlamov, who was the key guy in the Capitals' extremely important 5-on-3 penalty kill late in the first period that kept their early deficit at one. With Tom Poti (interference) and Mike Green (tripping) in the box, the Caps killed a 46-second 5-on-3 with Boyd Gordon, David Steckel and Shaone Morrisonn on the ice for most of the time. The key to the kill were the pair of point-blank saves Varlamov made on Sidney Crosby (with his left leg pad at the right post) and Sergei Gonchar (with his glove from the top of the circles). The kill -- and the saves -- allowed the Caps to go into the first intermission trailing only 1-0. They evened the score on Alex Ovechkin's goal just 2:18 into the second.

At some point David Steckel won't be unsung anymore, but for now the Capitals' third-line center still is and he gets the nod for the second straight game. Steckel scored his second goal in as many games. He also drew the tripping penalty on Evgeni Malkin with 7:07 to play that gave the Caps the power play they needed to score the winning goal only four seconds later. If that wasn't enough, Steckel won 10 of 13 faceoffs, including 9 of 11 against Sidney Crosby.

There are three marquee superstars in this series and two of them were omnipresent all night long. Every single time Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were on the ice they were noticeable and dominant. However, we can't say the same thing about Evgeni Malkin, this year's Art Ross Trophy winner as the League's leading scorer. Malkin had his second straight average game and is now scoreless in his last five games. He was also in the penalty box when his countryman, Ovechkin, scored the winning goal.

As if we haven't offered you enough evidence for how good Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were Monday night, let's take a look at these numbers: They combined for six goals, with hat tricks coming from both. Ovechkin scored what was the eventual game-winner with 4:38 to play in the third period, but Crosby came back with his third goal of the night with 30.4 seconds left to make it 4-3. Ovechkin picked up his first goal 2:18 into the second period off the rush after some artful passing from Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov. He made it 3-2 Caps with a power-play goal at 12:53 of the third after Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff back to Mike Green, who crossed it to Ovechkin for the one-timer. Ovechkin now has seven goals in his last six games. Crosby has six goals in his last three games.

Washington was far too undisciplined in the first period, committing five minor penalties, including Chris Clark's elbowing call that negated a chance for a power play. Sidney Crosby's goal 6:38 into the game came on the power play with Alexander Semin in the box after needlessly high-sticking Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. Mike Green's tripping penalty (he slew-footed Bill Guerin between the circles) could have killed the Caps as it gave Pittsburgh a 5-on-3 for 46 seconds starting at 17:32. Fortunately for Green's sake, his teammates killed it off and maybe saved the game despite how much time was left.

- Dan Rosen

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