By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 9, 2009
Sidney Crosby was the focus of 18,277 fans from the moment he stepped onto the ice for warmups. Many booed him. Others held up signs questioning his tactics. Someone even went through the trouble of handing out hundreds of baby pacifiers as a means of mocking the Pittsburgh Penguins' captain, who has a reputation for perceived whining to referees.
But at the end of a tense afternoon that featured 10 roughing penalties, it was Crosby who left Verizon Center snickering.
Crosby scored the game's first goal, set up another with a smooth pass and tallied in the shootout to lift the Penguins to a 4-3 victory that extended Pittsburgh's winning streak and the Washington Capitals' slide.
The Penguins' win was their sixth in a row, improved their record to 8-1-1 under new coach Dan Bylsma and moved them into the seventh spot in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals, meantime, have dropped four in a row (0-3-1) for the first time under Coach Bruce Boudreau and came up short in their bid to sweep the Penguins for the first time.
"I don't love it," Crosby said when asked about the inhospitable welcome he received. "But it doesn't change the way I do anything out there. I've played in some tough rinks before. Philly comes to mind as a tough building. But this one is gradually making its way up there."
Considering all of the buildup the Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin rivalry received before the game, it was fitting the extra point came down to those two players. Crosby beat José Theodore (19 saves), and Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves) stopped Ovechkin with a stick save to end the game and clinch the Penguins' first 5-0-0 road trip.
"We play well, for sure," said Ovechkin, whose 47th goal 29 seconds into the third period started the Capitals' rally. "But they play better. They make good trades. We play in the third period. We didn't play well in the first and second. I hope it's a good side for us."
Boudreau and his players were heartened by the third-period comeback but disappointed after falling at home to yet another opponent behind them in the standings.
"Bruce talks about a graph, and the graph goes up and down throughout the year and it seems we've been down and we're coming out," said defenseman Mike Green, who had two assists. "I thought we played well in the third. We kind of took the first and second period to get going. But we're coming out of it."
Boudreau added: "I think this was an uplifting game for us -- by far the best of the last four."
While Crosby certainly heard it from the Washington fans, he quickly proved his worth to the Penguins early in a crisply contested first period that ended 1-1.
Only 4 minutes 29 seconds in, Crosby finished a two-on-one with newly acquired veteran wing Bill Guerin to put the Penguins ahead 1-0. Guerin, who also had a goal, put the pass through defenseman Jeff Schultz, who misplayed the odd-man rush while the other defenseman, Tom Poti, misread the play, stepped up and hung out Schultz and Theodore to fend for themselves.
Alexander Semin pulled the Capitals even at 12:46 with a deke of Fleury. But the goal was created by Nicklas Backstrom's craftiness. Backstrom picked off Kris Letang's errant pass from behind the Pittsburgh net, retrieved the deflected puck in the corner, then backhanded it to Semin in the slot.
Theodore made sure the game stayed tied by turning back Crosby with a pad save on a breakaway with about two minutes left to play in the first period.
Both teams were more cautious in the second period. In fact, the Penguins mustered only five shots. Two of them, however, ended up behind Theodore.
Theodore stopped NHL leading scorer Evgeni Malkin from point-blank range, but he was less fortunate moments later when Sergei Gonchar scored on a four-on-three power play at 7:25. About 3 1/2 minutes later, Crosby made a deft pass off the boards at the Capitals' blueline a split second before Green arrived to Guerin, who turned Shaone Morrisonn around, then beat Theodore from between the circles.
The third period began with the Capitals on the power play, and Ovechkin wasted little time capitalizing. Green sent Ovechkin a cross-ice pass, and Ovechkin took it from there. Brooks Laich, who screened Fleury on the goal, put away a breakaway 49 seconds later to knot the game 3-3.
Theodore made big saves on Guerin and Malkin late to force overtime. But Theodore, who fell to 11-4 in shootouts, was no match for Crosby in penalty shots.
"Guys were prepared and into it," Laich said. "We had great goaltending from José Theodore tonight, just didn't get the result. We have to look at this game as a positive because I think we're on our way back up."