- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 5, 2009

It just keeps getting better, this Capitals-Penguins extravaganza. They’ve played two games now, and the score is Alex Ovechkin 4, Sidney Crosby 4 - and more importantly, Caps 2, Pens 0.

Saturday afternoon, the Washington margin was a nerve-wracking 3-2. Monday night it was a slightly more comfortable 4-3 - more comfortable because the final Pittsburgh goal came with just 31 seconds to go. The Capitals seem to have developed a formula for beating the Penguins - hang on by their helmet straps for two periods and then make the necessary plays to win.

By the end of Game 2, caps littered the ice and the Verizon crowd was saluting Alex Ovechkin with chants of “MVP!” - and deservedly so. Ovechkin racked up his first playoff hat trick and simply took over in the late going, blasting the go-ahead goal past Marc-Andre Fleury off a faceoff on the power play and providing some Crosby Insurance by flummoxing Fleury again less than three minutes later.

Just like that, a team that had one skate in the grave four games into the Rangers series had the Penguins in some semiserious trouble themselves. How often, after all, do the Pens get a hat trick from Sidney Crosby and lose a game, as was the case Monday night? If they can’t win that one…

“I’m sure it’s entertaining for people to watch,” said Crosby, who got two of his goals with the man advantage. “But as a player you don’t want to see a player on the other team get a hat trick.”

Still, for anyone not wearing a Pittsburgh uniform, it was great theater - the two biggest stars of the game matching each other goal for goal (for goal). As Bruce Boudreau put it, “It’s great for our sport. When you have hype of superstars playing against each other and the superstars play like superstars, it’s a neat thing.”

The fans’ raucous celebration when Ovechkin netted No. 3 caught even Alex, a guy used to hoopla, by surprise. “It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said, “when you see [them] go crazy. The atmosphere is unbelievable right now.”

The evening didn’t start out that way for Capitals, though. Indeed, there were some disturbing signs early on - namely, the Caps’ insistence on forming a conga line to the penalty box. They were continuing to give the Penguins way too many power plays, and the penalties they were taking weren’t good ones, either. The whistle Chris Clark drew in the first period - for a retaliatory shot at Bill Guerin after the latter slashed him (and was already headed to the box) was particularly indefensible.

The home team was behind 1-0 at the time - on Crosby’s first goal (with Alexander Semin sitting out) - and could have benefited from having the man advantage; but Clark got a little too Alpha Male with Guerin and denied his mates the opportunity. You just can’t be doing stuff like that in the playoffs, especially against a club with as much firepower as the Penguins.

Late in the opening period, the Pens had a five-on-three for 46 breath-holding seconds thanks to two more Capitals penalties against Tom Poti and Mike Green. Talk about tempting the fates. But the Caps survived it and went to the dressing room down just a goal.

Once again, though, you found yourself saying, “It could have been worse” - something you also found yourself saying early in Game 1. That’s another thing the Capitals have to work on. They can’t be having many more of these it-could-have-been-worse first periods in the postseason, because one of these nights they’ll have a first period that will be exactly as bad, scoreboardwise, as it should be and they’ll dig themselves a hole they won’t be able to climb out of.

“We’ve been fortunate to get the first goal [in both games],” Crosby said, “but we haven’t been able to do much with it. Getting the first one’s good; getting the second one’s better.”

To the Caps’ credit, they didn’t let the Penguins get any farther in front. They steered clear of the penalty box in the second period and pulled even on scores by Ovie (a one-timer off a lovely Viktor Kozlov feed) and goal-a-game David Steckel wrapped around another by Crosby.

It was the second time in the game Sidney parked himself in front of the net and cleaned up on somebody’s miss. You’d think he wasn’t one of the greatest players of the planet the way Washington defense is letting him operate down low. In fact, you’d think his name got left out of the scouting report.

It’s one thing for Crosby to score like he did in Game 1, by shooting the puck through a keyhole - as he and few others can do. It’s another thing for him to score because the ‘D’ isn’t paying him enough attention, isn’t getting enough of a body on him - as was the case Monday night. That just shouldn’t happen.

And it could have cost the Capitals dearly. But Simeon Varlamov, their nerveless young goalie, called on all his considerable powers to hold the Penguins off - and then Ovechkin did what Ovechkin does in the last eight minutes.

Teams are having an awful lot of trouble hanging on to the home-ice advantage in the second round. Before the Caps and Pens faced off Monday night, the Bruins (to the Hurricanes), defending champ Red Wings (Ducks) and Canucks (Blackhawks) had all given it up - not the best of omens.

But the Capitals held serve, as they say, and head to Pittsburgh leading the marquee series of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Can Messrs. Ovechkin and Crosby do anything to top their six goals in Game 2? If they were anybody other than Alexander the Great and Sid the Kid, you’d say no. But in this instance, with these two talents, there’s always the chance you’d be wrong.

• Dan Daly can be reached at ddaly@washingtontimes.com.

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