WASHINGTON - In the end, just as it should have, the game came down to Sidney Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin, the NHL's past two MVPs, each with the puck on his stick.
This wasn't about talking trash or swapping shoves. This was about who would come through in a shootout between Sid the Kid's Pittsburgh Penguins and Alex the Great's Washington Capitals in a late-season game played in a playoff-like atmosphere.
Crosby came through this time. Ovechkin did not.
Unlike their last meeting, Crosby avoided much in the way of face-to-face confrontations with rival Ovechkin on Sunday, instead producing a goal and assist in regulation, then the shootout's only score to help Pittsburgh edge Washington 4-3 - the Penguins' sixth consecutive victory and the Capitals' fourth straight loss.
"Great ones seem to have the game on the line when it's their turn," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Tonight it was Sidney's time to have the game on the line, and he's a great one. And he made no mistake."
After Crosby lifted his shot over goalie Jose Theodore's glove side, Marc-Andre Fleury thwarted Ovechkin with a kick save to end the shootout. Fleury earlier stopped shots by Alexander Semin and Viktor Kozlov, as Pittsburgh completed the first 5-0 road trip in franchise history.
"Today was a good challenge to see where we stack up, see where we're at, see where our players are at, see where our team's at," said Penguins interim coach Dan Bylsma, 8-1-1 since replacing the fired Michel Terrien on Feb. 15.
"It wasn't a perfect game, but it was a perfect road trip."
His lone regulation loss? A 5-2 setback in Washington on Feb. 22. Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged some pushing on the ice and plenty of jawing off it that day.
Crosby complained about Ovechkin's wild style of celebrating goals, saying: "Some people like it, some people don't. Personally, I don't like it."
And Ovechkin's assessment of Crosby? "He is a good player, but he talks too much."
It raised their rivalry's profile, and increased the animus Washington's fans directed toward Crosby. One spectator wearing a red Capitals jersey held a baby doll with a tiny Penguins jersey, with Crosby's name and No. 87 written in black marker on the back, while another member of the sellout crowd of 18,277 was handing out pacifiers to fellow fans.
Asked about the many taunting signs dotting the stands, Crosby said: "I try not to look too much, to be honest. ... I know there's a lot of them, and guys usually point them out to me if I don't see them myself."
He made it 1-0 only 4 1/2 minutes in, then used a back-to-the-ice, no-look backhand pass to set up Bill Guerin's first goal since being traded by the Islanders to the Penguins.
With Pittsburgh's climb up the Eastern Conference standings, it's possible there could be a Capitals-Penguins matchup in the first round of the playoffs.
"If that was the case," Crosby said, "I'm sure it would be pretty intense, pretty emotional."
On the other hand, the Southeast Division-leading Capitals have their longest losing streak under Boudreau - and all four of the defeats have come at home, against teams below them in the standings.
Does that worry Ovechkin?
"No, no, no," said Ovechkin, whose league-high 47th goal was part of a two-score rally in a 49-second span of the third period that erased Pittsburgh's 3-1 lead. "It's before the playoffs, so it's good for us."
While the two superstars didn't engage in much rough stuff with each other this time - other than, as Crosby noted, that Ovechkin "missed my head by a couple of inches on one hit" - there was plenty to go around elsewhere.
A check by Capitals defenceman Milan Jurcina on Tyler Kennedy dislodged a piece of glass and led to both players being sent to the penalty box, part of the first period's seven infractions, five on Pittsburgh. The second period began with a 4-on-4, and each team had nearly two minutes' worth of 4-on-3.
Both Crosby and Ovechkin were on the ice at the game's outset. Less than 1 1/2 minutes in, Theodore used his left pad to make a kick save on Crosby, who was camped out right by the goal.
It didn't take much longer for Crosby to find the mark, though. Set up by Chris Kunitz's pass, Crosby and Guerin found themselves on a 2-on-1 breakaway, and Guerin's assist was easily netted by Crosby for the lead. He raised both arms then pumped his fists - far tamer than the sort of all-out, slam-the-glass victory dance for which he criticized Ovechkin.
Not quite 8 1/2 minutes later, Ovechkin was being his excitable self, because the teams were tied thanks to Semin's 28th goal.
Nicklas Backstrom sent a pass across the ice to Semin. The Russian swept the puck across his body in front of the net, then - with a leg up in the air to keep his balance - sent a backhand past Fleury to score in a career-high sixth game in a row.
Ovechkin jumped into his countryman's arms, and Mike Green followed suit.
At the end of the game, though, it was the Penguins who were enthusiastically gathering on the ice, because Crosby scored on his shootout turn, and Ovechkin failed on his.
"That's how games go sometimes," Crosby said. "Sometimes there's a lot of buildup, and other times there's emotions and things like that come into play. But I think we're both trying to win."
Notes: Bylsma set a franchise record for most points in a Penguins coach's first 10 games, breaking a mark held by Herb Brooks. ... Theodore thwarted Crosby on a 1-on-1 late in the first period and made a nice glove save when Malkin got behind the defence with 7 1/2 minutes left in the third. ... Capitals RW Michael Nylander was out with an upper-body injury. ... Washington won the teams' other three meetings this season.