WASHINGTON — Alex Ovechkin’s first playoff hat trick was cause for celebration, worthy of so many red caps that Sidney Crosby wanted fans to be told to stop throwing them.
Minutes later, Crosby notched his first post-season hat trick, a consolation prize in a loss. Less than a half-dozen pieces of headgear made it to the ice.
It was a historic night for the NHL. Its two biggest stars — rivals who don’t care for each other — had their biggest playoff performances head-to-head. Ovechkin claimed the winning hand, breaking a tie with a pair of goals less than three minutes apart in the third period Monday night in the Washington Capitals’ 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“Sick game. Sick three goals by me and Crosby,” said Ovechkin, who celebrated by bouncing his body high off the glass after both of his third-period goals. “It’s unbelievable to see how fans react, how fans go crazy. The atmosphere right now, it’s unbelievable in town. You see all the red, and — probably I’m afraid to go home right now.”
The Eastern Conference semifinal series moves to Pittsburgh for Wednesday’s Game 3 with the Capitals leading 2-0. From 1991-2001, Washington lost five series in which it blew a lead against Pittsburgh, including 2-0 advantages in 1992 and 1996.
But that’s ancient history for Alex the Great and Sid the Kid, who quickly realized what a special game they had just played.
“It’s nice to score,” Crosby said. “But it’s better to win. … I’m sure it’s entertaining for people to watch, if I were to look at it from a fan’s point of view. As a player, you don’t like when the guy on the other team gets a hat trick. That’s usually not a good sign.”
Ovechkin nailed a one-timer from the left circle that beat Marc-Andre Fleury on a power play with 7:07 left, then skated between the circles before unleashing a slap shot that sailed past Fleury’s glove with 4:38 remaining for his third goal of the game and seventh of the post-season. After the first wave of hats came a second wave, prompting Crosby to speak to the referee about the long delay.
“People kept throwing hats,” Crosby said. “And I was just asking if he could make an announcement to ask them to stop.”
Crosby gave the Penguins leads of 1-0 and 2-1. His third goal came on a power play in the final minute after Fleury was pulled for an extra attacker, giving Crosby an NHL-leading eight in the playoffs.
“When you build up hype of superstars playing against each other, and then the superstars play like superstars, it’s a neat thing,” Washington coach Bruce Boudreau said.
One star not living up to his hype is Evgeni Malkin, who led the league in points in the regular season. He failed to score for the fifth straight game and committed the tripping penalty that gave Ovechkin the chance to score the go-ahead goal.
“I just go out and play my game,” Malkin said. “Sure, need to play better because we’re down. I need to score.”
David Steckel, who had eight goals in the regular season, got his second of the series and was the only goal-scorer not named Ovechkin or Crosby. Rookie playoff phenom Simeon Varlamov made 33 saves for the Capitals, including a pair of impressive stops during a 5-on-3 power play in the first period.
“It’s a battle of the two best players in the league, and tonight both of them carried their teams,” Washington defenceman Mike Green said. “We were fortunate we had Alex at the top of his game, and then had some guys like Stecks and these guys that are fourth-line guys pitch in, and that’s all it takes to win.”
There was no pretense of a loving relationship between the rival teams. A physical first period included nine penalties and plenty of mini-tussles. Crosby bowled over Green while advancing with the puck in the first minute. The Capitals wasted a chance at a power play when Chris Clark decided to punch Kris Letang in the face after the whistle had stopped play for a Pittsburgh penalty. Ovechkin got sandwiched along the boards and was shoved around whenever possible; he and Chris Kunitz traded blows in period’s final minute.
An exchange between Washington’s Alexander Semin and Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik resulted in three penalties — two of them on Semin. The resulting power play produced the game’s first goal, when Crosby poked a rebound under Varlamov’s left pad.
The goal broke a four-game, 0-for-17 drought for the Penguins’ power play.
More rough stuff: Kunitz delivered what Boudreau considered a “vicious” cross-check to Varlamov in the game’s final minute.
“We hope the league takes a long look at that,” Boudreau said.
Notes: It was only the second time in Capitals franchise history that two players recorded hat tricks in a game. Washington’s Al Iafrate and the New York Islanders’ Ray Ferraro did it in a 6-4 Capitals win on April 26, 1993. … Washington has won five straight playoff games, a franchise record. … Capitals RW Eric Fehr left in the first period with an undisclosed injury. He is day-to-day. … Capitals D John Erskine was scratched after taking a shot off his right leg in Game 1. He was replaced by Tyler Sloan, who was called up from Hershey of the AHL earlier Monday and had an assist in his playoff debut. … Karl Alzner was also promoted from Hershey and was a healthy scratch.