PITTSBURGH — Alexander Ovechkin insists he saw the puck, put his hands together and tried to give it a whack, only to see Kris Letang's right foot get in the way at the last second.
Letang lost his balance and crumpled to the ice before briefly going to the trainer's room after getting clubbed by Ovechkin, who skated away without a penalty. Pittsburgh's too frequent attempts at retribution ended up gifting the Capitals a 3-1 victory on Tuesday night.
Ovechkin picked up his NHL-leading 37th goal in the first period and assisted on Joel Ward's winner with just over four minutes remaining as Washington improved to 3-0 against the Penguins this season to draw within a point of Pittsburgh in the crowded Metropolitan Division.
Ward's first career goal against the Penguins came on a 5-on-3 power play, one of four times in the third period Washington had the man advantage as Pittsburgh fruitlessly tried to get even for a play Ovechkin believes was simply part of the game.
"I didn't think it was a penalty to be honest," Ovechkin said. "The puck was in his feet. Take a shot and that's it."
John Carlson added a short-handed empty-net goal in the final seconds and Braden Holtby made 32 saves for the Capitals, though it was Ovechkin's smashing of Letang's ankle that provided the jolt that could extend well into spring as the two teams jockey for postseason position.
"I just think we're just making a lot of nothing right now," Washington coach Barry Trotz said. "The speed of the game; ice is really slippery at the beginning of the period, so (Letang) went in a little heavier than he probably would have late in the period."
Penguins coach Mike Johnston erupted when officials came over after the play, and Ovechkin found himself drenched in beer while sitting on the bench. Yet Johnston allowed that his players spent too much time focusing on payback instead of trying to win the game.
"I thought we fought back, we competed for each other," Johnson said. "It's a fine line and you can't take four penalties in the third period against a team like that."
Steve Downie collected his 10th goal of the season for Pittsburgh. Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 29 shots but surrendered a pair of power-play goals.
"You want to respond when a guy gets slashed like that, but to a certain point we've got to keep our emotion in check," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "When we get the penalties we've got to find a way to kill them off."
Letang's frustration bubbled over late. With Chris Kunitz already off for boarding, Letang was called for slashing with 4:45 remaining to put Washington up two men. Fleury stopped an Ovechkin blast from the point but Nicklas Backstrom chased down the rebound. Backstrom then slipped a slick cross-ice pass to Ward. The veteran forward flipped it over Fleury for Ward's first goal in 17 career games against Pittsburgh.
Ovechkin gave the Capitals the lead late in the first period with his league-leading 17th power-play goal. The Russian star spent most of the man advantage camped out in his familiar spot in the left faceoff circle. Pittsburgh appeared on the verge of a vital clear when Paul Martin gave it up at center ice. Ovechkin pounced on the mistake and broke in alone on Fleury. A quick deke produced a backhander so quick it smacked off the back bar and out, forcing officials to take a look just to make sure it crossed the goal line.
Holtby's scoreless streak against Pittsburgh ended at 1:43:35 — better than seven periods — when Downie raced in following a mad scramble in front of the net and poked in the puck. The score seemed to bring the Penguins to life, setting the table for a taut finish.
"They've had quite the rivalry over the years," said Trotz, in his first season coaching in Washington. "It sounds like it's coming back."
NOTES: Pittsburgh went 0 for 3 on the power play and has now gone 0 for 18 since scoring against New Jersey on Jan. 30. ... Washington scratched Fs Aaron Volpatti and Jason Chimera and D Steve Olesky. ... Pittsburgh scratched D Christian Ehrhoff. Forward Zach Sill was a healthy scratch. ... The Penguins host Columbus on Thursday. Washington welcomes Winnipeg.
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