WASHINGTON - Before the start of this second-round series, it didn't seem possible that the match could possibly live up to the hype that had been heaped upon it, despite its considerable star power and the postseason history between two bitter rivals.
But after the Washington Capitals' 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins Monday night before a manic crowd at Verizon Center, a tense, thriller of a game punctuated by hat tricks for both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, that's exactly what's happening.
In what will likely go down as one of the best playoff games in recent memory, Ovechkin did exactly what Most Valuable Players do: he scored his final two goals in the final 7:07 to help the Capitals win a franchise-record fifth straight game and take a 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh on Wednesday.
"It's good for the fans to see great players play against each other and two great teams play against each other," said Ovechkin, whose hat trick was the first of his career in the playoffs. "It's unbelievable when we play against great players and you win the game like this."
Ovechkin broke a tiegame at 12:53 of the third period on the power play. Nicklas Backstrom won the faceoff deep in the Penguins' zone, kicked the puck back to defenseman Mike Green, who slipped a crossing pass to Ovechkin.
Ovechkin then fired a one-timer over Marc-Andre Fleury's blocker to put the Capitals ahead 3-2.
He provided what proved to be the winning margin a few minutes later.
With 4:38 remaining, he gathered Victor Kozlov's pass near the red line, blasted into the Pittsburgh zone, then rifled a shot past defenseman Sergei Gonchar and eventually Fleury's glove, sending the crowd into a frenzy and eliciting ear-splitting chants of "MVP, MVP" as hats rained down on the ice.
Ovechkin's third goal put the Capitals ahead 4-2. But it almost wasn't enough. Because Crosby managed to keep everyone on their edge of their seats with one more goal, this one batted out of midair past Simeon Varlamov with 30.4 seconds.
But the Penguins never mustered another shot.
"That's why Crosby and Ovechkin are who they are," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Not too many people can do what they did tonight."
Ovechkin, however, might not have been in position to supply the late heroics if not for the standout performance of another Russian: Varlamov, who, once again, was outstanding for the Capitals, making 33 saves.
"The one thing we've learned from experience is that you can't take for granted that you're going to be successful," Boudreau said. "All we really accomplished was, if this was a game of tennis, we've held serve."