WASHINGTON -- The Washington Capitals never said they thought the Pittsburgh Penguins were going to give up on first place in the Metropolitan Division.
In case the Capitals needed a reminder, the Penguins sent a clear message of their intentions with a 4-3 win at Capital One Arena on Sunday.
The first meeting between the rivals this season, a physical battle that heated up in intensity as it progressed, served as a refresher that these teams will probably have to go through each other again if they plan to win the Stanley Cup. That was the case when the Penguins won it in 2016 and 2017, and when the Capitals won it in 2018.
Video: PIT@WSH: Murray lays out to thwart Ovechkin's rebound
"They're a real good hockey team. I think we're a pretty good hockey team," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think anytime these teams play against one another there's always emotion. They're fun to be a part of."
Despite having to battle through a host of injuries earlier this season, including captain Sidney Crosby missing 28 games following core muscle surgery, the Penguins have climbed within four points of the Capitals for first in the division and the League and have played one fewer game.
A Washington regulation win Sunday would have pushed its lead to eight points, so it was a pivotal swing game that Pittsburgh probably needed more and the Penguins played like it, especially in the first two periods. With the Penguins having 30 games left, including three more against the Capitals -- at Capital One Arena on Feb. 23 and at Pittsburgh on March 7 and March 22 -- the race for the division is very much on.
"This is the kind of game we're going to see from here on in with the intensity and emotion and playoff kind of mentality," Crosby said. "We've got to earn every point we can get."
For as much star power as each team has with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang on the Penguins and Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Evgeny Kuznetsov among others on the Capitals, this was more of a blue-collar battle.
In the 50th regular season meeting Ovechkin and Crosby since they entered the NHL in 2005-06, Crosby had an assist on Dominik Simon's rebound goal that increased Pittsburgh's lead to 3-1 at 11:59 of the second period. Ovechkin, who had been red hot with 11 goals in his previous five games and is second in the NHL with 37 goals this season, was held off the scoresheet.
Video: PIT@WSH: Simon goes five-hole to double Pens lead
The Penguins got contributions from throughout their lineup, including one from rookie center Sam Lafferty, who was called up Saturday, that tied the game at 1-1 with 8:14 left in the first period, 1:08 after Lars Eller gave the Capitals a 1-0 lead. A deflection goal from Patric Hornqvist gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead and all the momentum with 7:20 left in the first.
The Penguins were the better team through the second period with Simon's goal increasing their lead to 3-1 before the Capitals pushed back hard in the third. Forward Tom Wilson was credited with a career-high 13 hits, including nine of the Capitals' 22 in the third period.
"I think we got fed up a bit," Wilson said. "We need to come out a little bit stronger, but these are the games where you kind of come together and you learn from it. A couple breaks here and there don't go our way and it just seemed a bit of a frustrating game. We did our best to try and turn the tide and it was just little bit late."
After Kuznetsov cut to the net to lift a backhand past goalie Matt Murry and pull the Capitals within 3-2 at 6:00 of the third period, the Capitals had multiple chances to tie it. But Murray came up big, making 11 of his 29 saves in the third, including a left arm stop on Ovechkin from the right side with 6:18 remaining to keep it 3-2.
"It was just kind of a loose puck," Murray said. "I think it just was a shot on net, it hit somebody and went to the left and I guess it was Ovi who picked it up and he made a nice move. He kind of held on to it instead of just shooting it. I just tried to get over there as fast as I could."
After the Penguins got a goal from their third line, with Brandon Tanev scoring from the slot with 2:33 left, to make it 4-2, Eller responded 15 seconds later to pull the Capitals back within one, but they were not able to get the tying goal past Murray.
Video: PIT@WSH: Tanev scores on deflection to extend lead
"You should always play like it is your last game and with the determination we saw in the third. That is how we are going to have success," Eller said. "It is very hard to do for 82 games. I don't think any team can do that, but we are growing. … We played well for the most part of the season. Today was just not our best for 60 minutes and that's it."
The Capitals will have to remember that when the face the Penguins next on Feb. 23. They should keep an eye out for them in their rearview mirror.
The Penguins are 19-5-1 in their past 25 games and moving up fast.
"We just battled, and we got the job done," Murray said. "We got some big blocks and big clears when we needed them, some big kills on the penalty kill. Guys were just working. It was awesome to see."