While all eyes were on Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby
and Washington's Alex Ovechkin
in Thursday night's marquee matchup at Mellon Arena, it was Washington's support players that made the difference.
Ovechkin had two goals and an assist, while Crosby had the game's opening goal in the first meeting between these two rivals since last season's epic meeting in the Eastern Conference semifinal round.
The Penguins won that memorable seven-game series on their way to their first Stanley Cup title since 1992. In the series, Crosby and Ovechkin had a personal duel for the ages as each scored eight goals in the seven games, including matching hat tricks in Game 2.
But on this night, it was Tomas Fleischmann who scored the winning goal on a breakaway 2:32 into the third period and Nicklas Backstrom
who added an insurance tally just 53 seconds later. Then, Ovechkin potted a half-ice empty netter to turn a taut game into a 6-3 victory for the visitors.
"(Eric) Fehr scores a goal on the third line, you have Fleischmann scoring on the second line, all three guys -- Mike (Knuble), Ovi and Nick --scored on that first line," Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. "It's pretty tough when teams want to shut us down right now. I think anybody can score on the team and I think that is the way they feel on any given night, that a new hero can arise."
But, as often as not, that hero is going to be the aforementioned Ovechkin. He was certainly the man driving Washington's furious comeback from deficits of 1-0 and 3-2. In fact, his PP goal with 3:35 left in the second not only tied the game at 3-all, but changed the contest's very complexion.
"They scored late in the second to tie it 3-3," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We came out in the third period and special teams were obviously decisive in the game. We couldn’t come up with that (penalty) kill.
"We had a couple chances on their power play to get some clears, but we didn't get those, and that was a big factor in those two power-play goals and we found ourselves fighting from behind."
Ovechkin's first goal was an exclamation point on a dominant performance that featured two goals and an assist, as well as eight shots on goal and seven hits.
"Two goals and great game and I think he played very well," Pittsburgh's Evgeni Malkin
(three assists) said of Ovechkin. "Every game, he plays 100 percent. It was a good game (for him), I think -- lots of shots, strong and lots of (skating). A good game."
On the tying goal, Ovechkin took a pass from Brendan Morrison just inside the blue line and ripped a slapper past a screened Brent Johnson
to give the Capitals an emotional lift heading into the dressing room for intermission.
"We just wanted to win this game and it doesn't matter how," Ovechkin said. "This group was very concentrated and I think we deserve this win."
Fleischmann made sure the Capitals got the win -- their fifth in a row and eighth in the past nine -- when he scored on a breakaway set up by a fantastic saucer pass from Alexander Semin
"That breakaway goal was a killer for us," Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik
The third period proved to be Pittsburgh's undoing Thursday night as Washington scored a pair of goals in the first 3:25, including a pretty power-play tally by Backstrom before Ovechkin scored his empty-netter to complete the scoring
"I don't think we played a bad third, they just played a little bit better," Crosby said.
In fact, the Penguins played a pretty good third period, firing off 13 shots at Jose Theodore. But none found the back of the net, as Theodore bounced back from a game-opening gaffe to play a very good game.
Theodore badly misplayed a dump-in, allowing the puck to hit the heel of his stick blade and squib into the crease. To compound matters, Theodore was slow in reacting to the mistake and Crosby was able to pounce for his 33rd goal of the season.
"In the past that might have really rattled Theodore," Boudreau said. "But that didn't rattle him at all, just like it didn't rattle us. He made a big save after that and that got him in the rhythm. We just kept coming."
In the end, it was a good-enough performance to beat the Stanley Cup champions and send the Capitals home with a three-point cushion atop the Eastern Conference standings and the knowledge that they can run with the Penguins this season when push comes to shove.
"We have won five in a row and we just want to continue it," Ovechkin said. "We beat great teams and the last two (Pittsburgh and Detroit) were in the Stanley Cup. The last game (against Detroit), we played terrible and we still get the points; but today we started great and we finished great. It's a big sign for us."