- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 24, 2010

With playoff-type weather outside Verizon Center, and a postseason atmosphere inside, the Washington Capitals equaled the franchise record for points in a season with a wild 4-3 shootout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday.

Trailing 2-1 after two periods, the Caps scored two goals less than two minutes apart, with Alexander Semin’s shorthanded tally turning the tide just over five minutes into the frame. Eric Fehr then put Washington ahead by tipping a Mike Green shot past Marc-Andre Fleury for the lead with 7:32 gone in the third. Jordan Staal forced the extra session with a rifle shot with 3:04 to play, and despite falling behind 2-0 in the shootout, Alex Ovechkin, Semin and Mike Knuble scored to deliver the win and the 108th point of the season.

“It’s pretty nice when you come back after [being down] 2-0 [in the shootout],” Ovechkin said afterwards. “It’s a great thing to do.”

With the win, Washington also closes in on the franchise’s first Eastern Conference regular-season crown, eliminating its rival from western Pennsylvania the race and now leaving just Buffalo and New Jersey with a chance to catch the Caps for the first seed. The Caps could secure the title tomorrow night in Raleigh when they face the Hurricanes with a win and a New Jersey loss to the Rangers.

In their first meeting since Canada eliminated Russia in the Olympics, both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby contributed assists for their squads and a goal apiece in the shootout. Although Crosby ended up with gold in Vancouver, at the NHL level, Ovechkin’s Caps now have won all three regular-season meetings this season with the Pens with one game left between the clubs in Pittsburgh next month.

Jose Theodore also continued his brilliant play as of late, stopping 39 of 42 Penguins shots — many of the spectacular variety. The Caps’ netminder is making a strong case to be the man in the crease once the playoffs begin in three weeks, posting a 17-0-2 record in his last 19 starts, the most games without a regulation loss in the NHL during the past 10 years.

“[Theodore]’s playing great,” Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards. “There are three goals against and they had 42 shots, eerily similar of a playoff game that we would have played them last year where they would out shoot us. … [The Penguins] were a determined gritty bunch tonight. That’s why they were the Stanley Cup Champions.”

For the Pens, who are battling for the Atlantic Division title with the Devils and moved into the lead with the single point, it was a gutsy effort for a team missing a pair of stars in Evgeni Malkin and Sergei Gonchar. Pittsburgh is still struggling in its race with New Jersey, going 2-3-3 in its last eight contests.

Pittsburgh narrowly got on the board first two minutes deep into the contest, when Ruslan Fedotenko nearly popped the puck past Theodore, then got a power-play when Tom Poti accidentally cleared the puck over the glass 2:09 in.

Crosby got the best chance with the extra attacker, but couldn’t beat Theodore.

After the teams traded exchanges, Pittsburgh got their second power-play of the night when Tomas Fleischmann was called for tripping a charging Fedotenko in front of the Washington net with 5:57 to play in the first period.

However, Washington’s penalty-killers were solid, with Crosby getting the best chance with a shot along the goal line.

Ovechkin had the first good chance for the Capitals when he took a Tom Poti shot and one-timed the puck but just missed it past the far post with his shot.

The Capitals were outshot 17-9 after 20 minutes, but the two teams headed to the locker room scoreless.

Washington got on the board just 1:09 into the second, as the Caps put on some early pressure. A shot by Nicklas Backstrom was stopped by Penguins netminder Fleury, but popped up in the air. On its way down, Knuble put the puck in the crease and tipped it just over the goal line to put the Caps on top.

That advantage was short-lived, as Brooks Orpik’s shot from the blue line was redirected by Maxime Talbot past Theodore with 2:21 gone, 1:12 after the Knuble tally.

Washington got their first power-play of the night 6:01 into the second, as Ovechkin was tripped up by Kris Letang to give the Caps a chance with the extra man.

Backstrom had a glorious chance to convert on a rebound of an Semin shot, but he missed the net with the shot.

Eric Fehr had a great chance with 8:50 gone, but Fleury made a spectacular save with his blocker to corral the puck.

Pittsburgh got another chance with the extra-man as Semin struck Michael Rupp with a high stick with 9:48 left in the period, but killed the penalty.

The Pens got another chance with the extra man when Fleischmann was called for tripping Talbot, and this time, Washington paid the price.

Then, with 5:21 left in the period, Crosby took the puck towards the net, lost it and then kicked it to his stick, where he delivered a backhand to Bill Guerin who gave Pittsburgh its first lead of the night.

John Carlson got a chance to tie the game when he took a Semin feed and hit the post, and the game was 2-1 after 40 minutes.

Pittsburgh got another chance with the extra-man 4:11 into the third, when Jeff Schultz was called for clutching Crosby as he drove to the net. However, it was Washington that got the goal as Semin intercepted a Crosby pass in the Washington zone, then took the puck along the wall before breaking toward the middle and firing a shot over Fleury’s shoulder to square the game with 5:36 gone.

“[Semin’s] goal there was as nice as youre going to see all year,” Knuble said. “Some of our guys can just break games like that. That’s a huge lift for the bench. All of a sudden you’re on your heals killing a penalty and he gets one. So thats a big lift.”

Just 1:56 later, Eric Fehr tipped a Mike Green shot past Fleury to put the Caps back in front and send the sellout crowd at Verizon Center into a frenzy.

“I didn’t want to try anything too fancy,” Fehr said of his goal. “It was a pretty hard shot [by Green] and I was lucky to get a hold of it.”

Pittsburgh had a golden chance to tie with under four minutes to play but Theodore recovered nicely on a rebound of a Guerin shot and robbed Jordan Staal’s backhand attempt. However, on the next shift, Staal placed a shot right in the top corner to square the game at 3 with just 3:04 left in regulation.

“Obviously it was a big goal for them when they got that third goal,” Theodore said. “You could see they had [a] little bit of momentum when they got that third goal. We had it before and they took it back with that goal.”

Both teams collected a point, and headed into sudden-death overtime.

Ovechkin, who scored the overtime game-winner back on Feb. 7 against the Pens, had a great chance in the second minute of the extra session, but couldn’t quite get the shot on net while being taken down. He then narrowly set up the game-winner, but Fleury got a piece of his centering feed for Backstrom to keep play going.

Letang took the first shot for Pittsburgh, and used a deke to beat Theodore to put the Pens up in the shootout. Backstrom went to the backhand on Washington’s first chance, but couldn’t lift the puck and was stopped by Fleury. Crosby then scored on a deke to put Caps against elimination, but Ovechkin scored to keep Washington alive.

Bill Guerin had the chance to seal the win for the Pens, but Theodore stopped the drive. Semin then kept the shootout going, beating Fleury with the backhand.

Chris Kunitz was the Pens’ fourth shooter, but Theodore stood his ground, paving the way for Knuble to deliver the game winner on the fourth shot.

“I don’t know how often you go down 2-0 in the shootout and you come back,” Boudreau said of his team’s effort. “It’s not the scoring. Its the thinking ‘Oh no, we’re done no way.’ And I dont think we ever think that.”

But, in a game that had a postseason flavor and a good back-and-forth pace, the Caps got the extra point and moved closer to clinching the top seed in the East, needing just three points in their final nine games to do so. They can move two points closer Thursday night in Carolina, and would eliminate Buffalo from the race with a win. Should New Jersey lose to the Rangers in Newark, the top seed would be secure.

“Tonight, obviously was a fun game,” Theodore said. “They came really strong in the first. We came back in the third. Then they came back. It was a fun game to watch but a fun game to play. And especially to get the win.”

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