- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Believe it or not, Alex Ovechkin could have had an even more incredible Monday night, but he chose to make sure his team was halfway to the Eastern Conference finals instead.

Ovechkin had his first career Stanley Cup playoff hat trick to help the Washington Capitals to a 4-3 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 2-0 series lead at sold-out Verizon Center.

Sidney Crosby matched Ovechkin’s three-goal night, but the Russian superstar had some help from David Steckel, and the final goal from Pittsburgh’s captain was too little too late.

“I think it’s great for our sport,” Caps coach Bruce Boudreau said. “When you have hype of superstars playing against each other and the superstars play like superstars, it’s a neat thing.”

Ovechkin could have shot for the open net in the waning seconds and a potential four-goal game, but he lofted the puck into the corner to run out the clock instead.

“I just tried to play it safe,” Ovechkin said. “It is unbelievable to play against great players and win a game like this. … Sick game, sick three goals by each guy, and if I was a Capitals fan, I’d be very happy right now.”

Last season’s MVP had two goals in the final 7:07 to break a 2-2 tie. Four seconds after Evgeni Malkin went to the penalty box for tripping Steckel, Ovechkin blasted a one-timer from Mike Green past Marc-Andre Fleury to put Washington in front.

He added another one with 4:38 remaining, which set off a wild celebration with hats strewn about the ice and chants of “M-V-P” echoing through the building. At the time it looked like an insurance marker, but the 2007 MVP had one final salvo.

Crosby batted the puck out of midair with 30.4 seconds left to cut Washington’s lead to 4-3, but that would be the final gasp from last year’s Eastern Conference champions. Game 3 will be Wednesday night as the scene shifts to Pittsburgh’s Mellon Arena.

“I am disappointed we lost,” Crosby said. “That doesn’t change. It is nice to score, but it is better to win. … I am sure it is entertaining for fans to watch. If I were to look at it from a fan’s point of view, that would be the case.”

For the second straight game, Crosby gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead. After Alexander Semin took an extra penalty during a post-whistle scrum with Brooks Orpik to give Pittsburgh a power play, Crosby stuffed the rebound of a Sergei Gonchar slap shot under the left leg of goalie Simeon Varlamov at 6:38 of the opening period.

Ovechkin made it 1-1 2:18 into the second period thanks to a defensive breakdown by Pittsburgh. Both Malkin and Hal Gill gravitated to Sergei Fedorov as he brought the puck in the offensive zone, but his pass to Viktor Kozlov opened up a two-on-one, and Ovechkin buried the one-timer for his fifth goal of the playoffs.

Crosby did net the Penguins’ second goal 10:57 into the middle period. Bill Guerin’s shot from the right wall was deflected by Chris Kunitz off Varlamov, but Crosby was able to win inside position for the rebound in a joust with Green.

Steckel netted his second goal in as many games to even the score at 2-2. A shot from Tyler Sloan, who was making his Stanley Cup playoff debut in place of the injured John Erskine, deflected off Penguins defenseman Kris Letang in front and came straight to Steckel near the right post, and he slid it under a sliding Fleury.

“I was lucky - it took a great bounce, and I was able to finish,” Steckel said. “[Our line] was all over the ice tonight.”

Varlamov may have yielded three goals to one of the best players in the world, but he bailed out the Caps with some incredible saves in the first two periods before Ovechkin provided the late heroics. He made 33 saves, including two with his team down a goal on the scoreboard and two men on the ice.

Guerin sent a pass across the crease to Crosby near the right post, but Varlamov was able to slide across and snuff out his one-timer. He also got a piece of a slap shot from Gonchar during the wild sequence, which set off a boisterous round of cheers for the 21-year-old rookie.

“We’ve got to play better,” defenseman Brian Pothier said. “Tonight, we weren’t the better team, but our goaltender played phenomenal and kept us in the game.”

• Corey Masisak can be reached at cmasisak@washingtontimes.com.

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