PITTSBURGH (AP) — If there can be a playoff game in January, this was it. The Washington Capitals only hope that beating the Pittsburgh Penguins during the season will show them how to get it done when the games truly count.
Alex Ovechkin scored twice and the streaking Capitals scored the final four goals to beat the Penguins 6-3 on Thursday night in the first game this season between elite teams led by the NHL’s two signature stars.
Tomas Fleischmann scored the go-ahead goal early in the third period and set up Nicklas Backstrom’s breakaway goal less than a minute later for Washington. The Capitals won their fifth in a row and eighth in nine games and improved to 4-0-1 against Pittsburgh the last two seasons, although the Penguins won when it mattered in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Eric Fehr and Mike Knuble also scored as Washington came back from deficits of 1-0 and 3-2 despite Sidney Crosby’s goal, a revived Evgeni Malkin’s three assists and rookie Nick Johnson’s goal in his first NHL game.
The first Capitals-Penguins game since Pittsburgh’s 6-2 win in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 13 was only the start of their four-game season series, but it had a different feel than a mere regular-season game — and not just because Ovechkin and Crosby revived a rivalry that also may play out in the Olympics next month.
“It had the feeling of a playoff game, and that obviously happens with the matchup we have with Sid and Ovechkin,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “The intensity was definitely there.”
In their 23 career meetings, Crosby has 17 goals and 23 assists and Ovechkin has 18 goals and 17 assists — obviously, the two get revved up to play each other. Only this time, it was the secondary cast that turned the game for Washington, which has beaten last season’s Stanley Cup finalists, Pittsburgh and Detroit, in a span of three days.
“We just wanted to win this game, it doesn’t matter how,” Ovechkin said. “All this group was really concentrating. I think we deserved this win.”
The Capitals seized the lead when Fleischmann grabbed Alexander Semin’s chip pass in stride in the neutral zone and scored on a breakaway 2:32 into the third. Bill Guerin drew an interference penalty 27 seconds later, and Backstrom put the puck under the crossbar on an uncontested wraparound created by Fleischmann’s pass to make it 5-3 at 3:25, Washington’s second power-play goal in as many chances.
“On the ice, we didn’t try to think about Game 7,” Ovechkin said of a loss that Washington further regretted after Pittsburgh went on to win the Stanley Cup. “They’re an unbelievable team. We want to improve, and we want to gain that spot where they were last year. … If we do everything that coach (Bruce Boudreau) says, I don’t think anyone can stop us.”
The pace was uptempo from the start, with lots of hitting and considerable booing of Ovechkin, whose knee-to-knee hit put defenseman Sergei Gonchar out of that playoff series.
“It’s great,” Ovechkin said. “I think the fans love me. They booed me because I’m not on their team.”
Washington gained control after Ovechkin tied it at 3 late in the third on a power play with a hard wrist shot from the high slot that goalie Brent Johnson couldn’t see as Knuble screened him. Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was off for holding Ovechkin.
After that, Fleischmann’s breakaway early in the third significantly quieted the crowd.
“That seemed like a big momentum swing,” Orpik said.
Ovechkin’s two goals gave him 32 for the season and 251 for his career. Only Wayne Gretzky (356 goals), Mike Bossy (305) and Mario Lemieux (300) also scored as many as 250 goals in their first five seasons.
There were Olympic overtones, too, with Ovechkin and Malkin teaming up for Russia and Crosby expected to be Canada’s biggest name. The teams meet again Feb. 7 in Washington, exactly a week before the players start arriving in Vancouver.
“It’s an intense game, emotional, much like Philadelphia and the fans get into it,” Crosby said. “You don’t like to lose them, but that’s why you play the game, for games like that.”
NOTES: Penguins fans donated $17,309 for Haiti earthquake relief, an amount the team then matched. … Capitals D Mike Green, the top scorer among NHL defensemen with 50 points, sat out with an undisclosed injury. The Penguins were without F Max Talbot and F Pascal Dupuis with injuries sustained Tuesday against the Islanders. Dupuis suffered a facial cut when he was rammed into the boards by D Andy Sutton, who drew a two-game suspension. Nick Johnson, called up because of the injuries and immediately put on Malkin, scored at 2:50 of the second. … Crosby was limited to a point after having two goals and four assists against the Islanders. … Malkin, slumping for several weeks, has six points in two games. … Penguins F Ruslan Fedotenko also had three assists. … Pittsburgh was 0 for 4 on the power play.