WASHINGTON -- For two days, everyone associated with the Penguins' game against Washington last night insisted that it wasn't just about two guys.
Turns out they were right.
It was about 19 of them.
All wearing Penguins sweaters. All of whom, through the early portion of the evening, had an apparent penchant for self-immolation.
And who, for the balance of what became a 5-4 shootout victory against Washington at the Verizon Center, played with the character and composure and commitment of a team that grasps its outstanding potential. And is intent on living up to it.
Which is why it didn't really matter that they spotted Washington four goals before deciding that hockey isn't supposed to be a spectator sport for everyone.
"What a comeback," winger Erik Christensen said. "What a game."
The personal duel between Penguins center Sidney Crosby and Capitals winger Alexander Ovechkin ended in a statistical dead heat -- Crosby scored one goal and set up another, while Ovechkin had two assists -- although Ovechkin scored Washington's only goal in the shootout.
Crosby, conversely, failed to beat Capitals goalie Olaf Kolzig, but Christensen and Evgeni Malkin did, as the Penguins won for the first time in three shootouts this season and the second in nine tries overall.
"That's big for our confidence," Crosby said.
Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise, though, because Washington is 0-5 in shootouts this season.
That presumably had more of an impact on the outcome than did some of the Penguins turning their helmets backward, rally cap-style, in the shootout.
"Whatever works," forward Ryan Malone said.
The victory raised the Penguins' record to 13-11-5 and gave them five of a possible six points on a three-game road trip.
They got the final two in a fairly private setting as the sports fans of this region clearly did not get caught up in the pregame hype about a Crosby-Ovechkin rematch.
The tickets-in-circulation count was 14,793; the actual turnout looked more like a friends-and-family gathering. Assuming most of the Capitals are loners and only children.
What the folks who bothered to show up saw was complete domination by Washington during the opening period, as evidenced by its 17-8 edge in shots and 2-0 advantage on the scoreboard.
"For whatever reason, we just came out flat," Malone said.
"They deserved the lead they got. We weren't making the right plays. We were standing still. They're a good, hard-working team, and they took advantage of that."
Former Penguin Kris Beech made it 1-0 with a power-play goal at 5:10, and Chris Clark put the Capitals up by two 46 seconds later.
And things didn't improve any for the Penguins before the first intermission.
"Michel [Therrien, the Penguins coach] came in and just said, pretty calmly, that that was the worst he'd ever seen us play," Christensen said. "And he was right."
That didn't stop Clark from scoring at 2:57 of the second, though, or Brooks Laich from rubbing it in with a short-handed goal at 5:55 to put Washington up by four.
"We were embarrassed," Christensen said.
They should have been.
But Maxime Talbot spoiled Kolzig's shutout bid -- and gave the Penguins some badly needed equilibrium -- at 6:49, and Christensen (18:08) and Crosby (18:43) buried pucks in the final two minutes of the second to create the first real suspense about the outcome.
Malkin then made it infinitely more interesting at 3:20 of the third, collecting a Malone rebound and tossing it behind Kolzig for what proved to be the final goal before the shootout.
"We just kept rolling," Crosby said.
"Shift after shift, we were grinding away."
And, when they finished, the Penguins had ground out two points that had been unthinkable just a few hours earlier. And took a significant step back toward the Eastern Conference playoff pack in the process.
"It's going to be a battle all year," Christensen said. "It's going to go down to the wire. To pick up an extra point like this is huge."Nick Wass, Associated Press photos
Marc-Andre Fleury keeps his eyes on the puck as it sails over Washington's Alexander Ovechkin, in the first period of the Penguins' shootout win last night.
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Sidney Crosby works the puck against the Washington Capitals' Boyd Gordon in the first period of last night's game in Washington.
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Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .