WASHINGTON -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' 3-2 win against the Washington Capitals on Thursday was everything it was supposed to be. The defending Stanley Cup champions vs. the Presidents' Trophy winners. The top two teams in the regular season and two of the top players of their generation going head to head in the Eastern Conference Second Round.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby scored twice early in the second period. Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin responded with a goal late in the second, and Capitals center Evgeny Kuznetsov tied it midway through the third. Penguins center Nick Bonino scored four minutes later. And then, with about three minutes to go, this:
[RELATED: Bonino comes up big for Penguins | Complete Capitals vs. Penguins series coverage]
Capitals defenseman Nate Schmidt took a shot from the right circle. Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury made the save and fell backward. Five Capitals crashed the net, and five Penguins defended it, bodies flying, sticks whacking, crowd roaring.
Fleury lost his stick but popped up on his knees on the goal line trying to find the puck. Ovechkin lost his helmet and raised his right arm. Verizon Center vibrated with excitement and anxiety.
The puck finally popped out into the left circle. Capitals defenseman John Carlson spun around and shot it. Fleury stopped it. Ovechkin knocked down Fleury as the puck bounced into the right circle.
Fleury popped back up. Schmidt shot the puck. Fleury stopped it, falling on his right side. Another rebound. Another save.
Fleury was credited with four saves in the 18-second sequence, three in the last five seconds.
"I couldn't see the puck for a little while," said Fleury, who made 33 saves. "I had no stick. So I think everyone tried to make some stops. It was fun."
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm1: Fleury scrambles to make late saves
If it was any indication this is going to be a long series of skill and swings and flurries. Game 2 is here Saturday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports). Remember to breathe when you can.
"That's what we expect, a tough series," Fleury said. "Every game will be a battle to win it."
Often we simplify this rivalry into Crosby vs. Ovechkin, even though Crosby is a center, Ovechkin is a left wing and hockey is a team sport. But sometimes we get the marquee matchup and these two back and forth, not because they are competing against each other individually, but because they are competitive individuals who lead their teams.
This wasn't as amazing as their dueling hat tricks in the Stanley Cup Playoffs on May 4, 2009. But it was grand theater. After a tight first period, Penguins coach Mike Sullivan put out the Crosby line to start the second. Capitals coach Barry Trotz, unafraid to go power against power, put out Ovechkin's line.
Capitals defenseman Matt Niskanen stepped up to make a play in the neutral zone and lost a battle to Penguins forward Patric Hornqvist. Just like that, the Penguins had a 2-on-1 rush. Penguins forward Jake Guentzel passed from left to right for Crosby, who, in one motion, whipped the puck past the glove of goaltender Braden Holtby at the 12-second mark.
Sullivan put out the Evgeni Malkin line for the ensuing faceoff. When the Penguins dumped the puck into the Washington zone, he put the Crosby line right back out.
"It was an opportunity that I thought that we had to try to build on the momentum that we got with the goal," Sullivan said.
Video: PIT@WSH, Gm1: Crosby scores two in 52 seconds
The PA announcer was crediting Crosby's first goal to boos while Penguins defenseman Trevor Daley forced a turnover at the Pittsburgh blue line. Crosby sparked another rush. It ended with a rebound, a little pass by Hornqvist and a second Crosby goal at 1:04, when the PA announcer still wasn't finished with the first. Crosby had two assists in six games when the Penguins and Capitals met in the second round last year; now he had two goals in 52 seconds.
Ovechkin responded at 18:17. Capitals forward T.J. Oshie dropped a pass. As he was headed off on a change, Capitals forward Lars Eller tapped the puck to Ovechkin, who skated to the top of the left circle and shot it into the upper left corner, waking up the crowd and getting the Capitals back into the game.
In 14 playoff games against each other, Ovechkin has 22 points (11 goals, 11 assists). Crosby has 17 points (10 goals, seven assists).
"I don't think they're driven by the other guy's success or whatever. I think they're just driven athletes," Trotz said. "That's why they're in the top 100 in the history of this League. They're the faces of both franchises."
After Kuznetsov scored 8:05 into the third period, the Capitals had the momentum. But here came Bonino at 12:36, the same Bonino who had five points (two goals, three assists) against the Capitals in the playoffs last year, including the series-clinching goal in overtime of Game 6.
And here came the frantic finish. After that flurry with about three minutes go, Fleury made three more saves, and his teammates blocked four more shots.
"This is two good teams going at it," Sullivan said. "There's going to be times when they're going to come at us. There's going to be times when we're going to go at them. And I think that's what we expect. It's our ability to push back when we lose momentum. It's our ability to make sure that we maintain the right focus at the discipline trying to stick with the game plan and not allow those momentum swings or surges to hurt us."
It's our ability to hang on tight and enjoy the ride.
Video: Crosby's pair leads Pens past Caps in Game 1, 3-2