By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 8, 2010; D01
Sidney Crosby scored the first two goals Sunday. Alex Ovechkin, though, ended up doing the Pittsburgh Penguins captain one better.
Ovechkin recorded his first regular season hat trick in almost a year, then assisted on Mike Knuble's overtime winner at Verizon Center, where the fans who trudged through two feet of snow were treated to a 5-4, come-from-behind victory that extended the Washington Capitals' winning streak to 14 games and ended any discussion about which rivalry is hockey's best.
"You can tell when he's having one of his days, and when he's having one of his days," Coach Bruce Boudreau said of Ovechkin. "Days when I see that his recovery rate is unbelievable. He sits on the bench for 30 seconds and I know he wants to go again."
Since Ovechkin was named captain on Jan. 5, the two-time MVP has 16 goals and 20 assists and the Capitals have won 17 of 18. The winning streak is tied for the third longest in league history (with the 1929-30 Boston Bruins) and, with three games remaining before the Olympic break, puts them in position to tie the NHL's longest run, set by the Penguins in 1993. The win also marked Washington's 11th straight on home ice, setting a franchise record.
And the reason the streaks are still alive was a red blur with a tinted visor and yellow skate laces.
The Penguins took a 4-1 lead on Jordan Staal's second goal of the game with 6 minutes 53 seconds remaining in the second period. But the Capitals scored the next four goals -- two by Ovechkin, who leads the league with 42 goals and 86 points.
After Eric Fehr cut the deficit to 4-2 late in the second period, the stage was set for a vintage Ovechkin performance.
At 6:51 of the third period, the 24-year-old Russian backhanded in a shot that had been knocked down in front by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. Then, just 4:15 later, he rifled a one-timer off a faceoff past Marc-André Fleury (29 saves) to tie the score, send the crowd into delirium and elicit chants of "M-V-P" as hundreds of hats rained down on the ice. The Capitals have outscored opponents, 30-6, in the third period during their streak.
"It's always nice to win when you are a little bit frustrated in the first period," Ovechkin said. "The game didn't go well for us right away."
It almost didn't go well late, either. With 4:08 remaining in regulation, Jeff Schultz was penalized for slashing Matt Cooke's stick in two. There was only one problem: Schultz never touched Cooke's stick.
A poorly officiated game, though, might have helped the Capitals in the end. In overtime, Orpik was sent off for high-sticking Alexander Semin in the face. Just 23 seconds later, Knuble pushed a rebound under Fleury after Ovechkin had fired a shot off the post.
Afterward, Orpik, who received a game misconduct at the buzzer for arguing with referees, said Semin was guilty of embellishing.
"He sells it all the time," Orpik said. "The kid's a baby. I've got zero respect for the kid. If it was a penalty, it was a penalty. I don't know. But the kid does that all game long. It's tough to lose on that."
Boudreau said: "Tit for tat, then it ended up being [six] to four in penalties anyway. I hope he's not whining about it."
Knuble's winner, meantime, was his 11th goal in the past 13 games.
"I never saw it," Knuble said. "I thought they had blown the horn for [Ovechkin's] shot. But it was under Fleury. I didn't see anything. I just got my stick on it and poked it through. I heard everyone yelling and I didn't really know what happened."
The goal capped an afternoon that did not start so well for the home team, and, in fact, was reminiscent of the Penguins' previous trip here, a 6-2 win in Game 7 of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals.
Despite arriving after 2 a.m. because of travel troubles caused by the snowstorm, the Penguins took a 2-0 lead on a pair of goals by Crosby in an intense first period that featured a handful of big hits, a half-dozen scrums and one bad turnover by Capitals defenseman Tyler Sloan.
Sloan's clearing attempt was picked off by Crosby, who skated in alone and beat José Theodore between the pads 6:59 into the game.
Exactly three minutes later, Crosby was celebrating his 39th goal, which tied his career high with 23 games remaining. With Brooks Laich in the penalty box for interference, Evgeni Malkin made a no-look touch pass to a cutting Crosby, who beat Theodore with a forehand, backhand, forehand fake to make it 2-0. Theodore (31 saves) was at fault for neither goal and had a strong game despite allowing four.
"The first 10 minutes were the worst our defense had played in so long," Boudreau said.
Near the end of the first period, tempers flared after Ovechkin was shoved into the sideboards by Craig Adams. Knuble immediately challenged Adams to a fight, and as a result, earned an instigator minor and 10-minute misconduct. Ovechkin stayed down momentarily after going headfirst into the boards.
About nine minutes into the second period, Ovechkin got even. Sprung on a breakaway by a stretch pass from Schultz, he scored his 40th.
That goal, however, was just the start of a special afternoon for Ovechkin, whose last hat trick came on Feb. 15, 2009 in Florida. He had the first three-goal game by any Capitals player this season.
"Ovie was crazy," said Fehr, who scored his first goal in eight games. "He was awesome. He took the team, put us on his back and carried us. That's what we needed tonight. He was wonderful."
Capitals notes: Defenseman Karl Alzner was reassigned to the minor league Hershey Bears. . . . Defenseman John Erskine and left wing Quintin Laing were healthy scratches.