WASHINGTON (AP) — The calendar said December. The intensity felt like late spring.
The third meeting this season between longtime rivals Pittsburgh and Washington featured tight checking, strong goaltending and more than a few punches. The Penguins won 2-1 on Wednesday night, yet the Capitals appreciated the ferocity with which the game was played.
"It was a good game, especially this time of year, one with playoff mentality," Washington goaltender Braden Holtby said. "We haven't had one of those since Vegas."
Holtby was referring to the 2018 Stanley Cup finals, when the Capitals beat the Golden Knights to earn their first championship.
Washington came in with five straight wins and a 12-2 record since Nov. 14.
"Obviously, you don't want to end up on the losing side, but I think we did a lot of good things tonight and both teams played really well," Holtby said. "It's one you can really learn from."
Sidney Crosby and Bryan Rust scored for the Penguins. They were scuffling along with a 15-12-6 record before playing one of their best games of the season.
"We've got to build on it," Crosby said. "It's a divisional game, a rivalry, a team that we've seen a lot, so these kind of intense, emotional games seem to bring out the best in us. We understand we need that same intensity, same desperation every night if we want to win."
It was the third meeting this season between the rivals, each of which has been decided by one goal. Pittsburgh has won two of them. In this one, Crosby had a hand in both Pittsburgh goals and logged more than 22 minutes.
Facing Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals is all the motivation Crosby needs to bring his game to a higher level.
"When you play these rival-type games, there's an elevated level of emotion associated with it," coach Mike Sullivan said. "My experience of being around Sid is that he's at his best in those situations."
Rust broke a 1-1 tie late in the second period with his sixth goal in five games, and the Penguins held on behind goaltender Matt Murray, who stopped 31 shots.
"They're a heck of a team," Murray said. "They won last year for a reason. They gave us all we could handle."
Ovechkin was held without a goal for the first time in seven games and had his career-high run of games with a point end at 14.
In addition, Washington's Evgeny Kuznetsov had his streak of eight straight games with an assist come to an end, one shy of the franchise record.
Lars Eller put the Capitals up 1-0 at 6:38 of the second period, pushing the puck past Murray after taking a lead pass from Tom Wilson.
Crosby tied it less than three minutes later, deflecting a pass from Evgeni Malkin into the right side of the net with Pittsburgh on the power play.
Rust made it 2-1 with just over a minute left in the period, hacking away at the puck in front of the net before it finally popped Holtby.
In the third period, Holtby snagged a shot by Malkin on a breakaway to keep Washington within striking distance.
Twice over the final 20 minutes, Kuznetsov took shots that slipped through Murray's legs, only to be swatted away by Pittsburgh defensemen an inch before sliding past the goal line.
Early on, it was apparent that this wasn't just another midseason game. With less than a minute elapsed, Wilson and Pittsburgh defenseman Jamie Oleksiak shed their gloves and got into a fight. Oleksiak was helped off the ice with a cut on his cheek, and both players received five-minute penalties. Oleksiak did not return.
Four minutes later, Ovechkin and Kris Letang traded blows behind the Pittsburgh net before being sent to the penalty box for roughing.
The scoreless first period featured more penalty minutes (18) than shots on goal (17).
NOTES: The Capitals' run of 14 straight games with at least three goals ended. ... Crosby took over the team lead in points with 38. Crosby, Phil Kessell and Malkin all entered with 36. .... The Capitals fell to 9-4-3 when taking at least 30 shots. ... Pittsburgh has earned point in seven of nine games and 12 of 16. ... Crosby has 35 goals and 63 assists in 73 games against the Ovechkin-led Capitals. Ovechkin has 46 goals and 37 assists in those games.
Penguins: Host Minnesota on Thursday night.
Capitals: Host Buffalo on Friday night, a rematch of Saturday's game won by Washington in overtime.
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