By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 7, 2010; D01
PITTSBURGH -- Alex Ovechkin's bid to claim his third straight Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy received a big boost Tuesday night.
The two-time MVP struck twice in the third period, including an empty-net goal with less than a second left, to help the Washington Capitals clinch their first season sweep over the Pittsburgh Penguins with a 6-3 victory at Mellon Arena.
It marked Ovechkin's first multi-goal game since March 8, a span of 13 contests.
"It's good for me mentally, with two games left before the playoffs," he said. "It's the kind of situation where those two goals give you a little relief and make you feel more comfortable."
Ovechkin's goals were his 47th and 48th and moved him into a tie with Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who also scored Tuesday. Steven Stamkos, Tampa Bay's 20-year-old phenom, added another as well, and has 47.
Ovechkin briefly moved into a tie with Vancouver's Henrik Sedin for the NHL points lead, at 106. Sedin had an assist late Tuesday night in the Canucks' 4-3 victory to retake the lead with 107 points.
"All our mind in this locker room is getting ready for the playoffs, not about personal goals and scoring leaders," Ovechkin said, before adding: "Of course, I want to win and Sid wants to win."
Penguins defenseman Jordan Leopold scored his second goal of the night 49 seconds into the third period to cut the Capitals' lead to 4-3 and spark the capacity crowd.
But Ovechkin answered less than two minutes later on the power play, ripping a shot past Brent Johnson from between the circles. Nicklas Backstrom (three assists) won the faceoff off a linesman's skate and passed back to Ovechkin, who later added his league-leading fifth empty-netter.
The Capitals improved to 4-0-0 against their longtime nemesis this season. Their previous best was a 6-0-1 record in 1984-85.
"It's nice that we did it, and I'm happy," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "But I don't think it will mean a hill of beans if we meet them in the playoffs."
Goaltender Semyon Varlamov made 26 saves to record back-to-back wins for the first time since a four-game winning streak Nov. 28 to Dec. 7.
Varlamov's effort, though, was only a footnote on a night dominated by the Capitals' league-leading offense, which included a milestone goal by the team as well as personal bests for Alexander Semin, Matt Bradley and Backstrom.
Semin's first-period goal was his career-best 39th, and it gave Washington 300 for the season (not counting the team's five shootout clinching goals), the highest total in the NHL since 2005-06, when Ottawa racked up 312 and Detroit notched 301.
"I love defense, too," Boudreau said with a laugh. "But we have a team built as an offensive team."
Bradley's second-period goal was his 10th, one more than he had as a member of the San Jose Sharks in 2001-02. Backstrom, meanwhile, recorded three assists and now has 67, a career high.
"It's nice to hit that," Bradley said. "It's not a huge milestone, but for me it feels nice to get to 10 and big win here tonight."
Bradley's goal was the game-winner. But Ovechkin's pair meant more for the team's long-term prospects.
"I see signs of him perking up, and this is a good time to do that," Boudreau said. The Capitals have two games remaining; Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay have three.
Semin got the Capitals off to another strong start, opening the scoring at 13:00 of the first period after faking Alex Goligoski to his knees in the neutral zone with an inside-outside move and then firing a shot over Marc-Andre Fleury's glove. Washington has scored first in each of its past four contests.
Mike Knuble stretched the lead to 2-0 with an ordinary shot that sneaked under Fleury's pads.
"I doubt it," Boudreau said when asked if the Capitals were "in Fleury's head."
"He won the Cup. I've seen him play really bad one night and then go and shut a team out."
With Knuble in the penalty box moments later, Crosby made it 2-1 with a power-play goal. But a goal by Tomas Fleischmann 21 seconds later chased Fleury from the Pittsburgh net.
With the Penguins set to move into the sparkling new Consol Energy Center next season, it's possible that the game was Washington's last at the 48-year-old Mellon Arena. But it seems more likely that the bitter rivals will be back here at some point in the postseason.
"The playoffs are a whole new ballgame," Boudreau said when asked if the sweep gave his team a psychological edge. "Everybody wipes the slate clean and [things] get ramped up to a different level, I don't know if it's going to affect them, but I doubt it."
Capitals notes: Star defenseman Mike Green did not suit up for the second consecutive game because of an undisclosed minor ailment. . . . Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins' second-leading scorer, was a late scratch with an illness.