WASHINGTON -- Going back to junior hockey, Sidney Crosby had never played in a Game 7. The center was the No. 1 star in his first one.
In what was a grand finale to a star-studded series, he led the Penguins to the Eastern Conference final of the National Hockey League for the second year in a row with a performance against Washington that was all but written in Capital letters.
The Penguins' captain was locked up with Washington's Alex Ovechkin in an individual duel showcasing two of the top talents in the NHL. But not only is Crosby driven to excel, he also is fueled by a hatred of losing that has haunted him since the loss to the Detroit Red Wings in last year's Stanley Cup finals.
"You want that feeling of winning, but it's almost like you don't ever want that feeling of losing again," he said.
Crosby scored two goals and added an assist in a 6-2 victory in the second round that eliminated the Capitals, the second-seeded team in the East, four games to three. The Penguins were seeded fourth.
The teams had entertained audiences for six games with that rarest of sports match-ups, an epic series that lived up to lofty expectations. But the deciding game was anticlimactic as the Penguins raced to a five-goal lead in the second period and chased goalie Simeon Varlamov to the bench. In a city notorious for federal bailouts, nothing could save the Capitals.
Historically, the playoff victory continued a stretch of Capital punishment by the Penguins, who are now 4-0 in a Game 7 played on the road. The Penguins have met the Capitals eight times in the playoffs and have won seven of them.
Where and when the next playoff round begins is still up in the air. The Carolina Hurricanes and Boston Bruins have pushed their series to their own Game 7. If Carolina can win on Boston ice, the Penguins would have home-ice advantage in the conference final.
As exciting as the hockey has been so far, however, the Penguins are only halfway to their ultimate goal. They must win two more series by posting eight more victories to claim the Stanley Cup.
In terms of average margin of victory, not to mention the bad blood and simmering emotions, this had been the most tightly contested playoff series in Penguins history.
Before last night's explosion, the Penguins had a 21-20 edge in goals. Three of the first six games required overtime to decide a winner, and both teams had a lead at some point in each of the games.
But the drama vanished early as Crosby silenced another hostile road crowd. After goalie Marc-Andre Fleury made a couple of big saves to keep the game scoreless, Crosby scored on a power play.
Eight seconds later, fourth-line winger Craig Adams scored the first playoff goal of his career. It was the second fastest goal-scoring flurry in playoff history for the Penguins. The Penguins scored seven seconds apart on April 13, 1980.
Crosby also assisted on winger Bill Guerin's goal 28 seconds in the second period, and a crowd that hurled insults at him was reduced to stunned silence. For good measure, he added another power goal in the third period after he was hit in the face with a stick.
While the Penguins would have loved to close out the series at home, coach Dan Bylsma stressed to his players that they had a chance to do something special in a special situation. What transpired was the second straight time the Penguins had won on Capitals ice.
"You don't get this opportunity very often in your career," Bylsma said. "There have been big momentum swings in this series. That's why it's been so compelling. As kids, we all talked about playing in a Game 7. Your career is enhanced by these situations."
He noticed a "steely resolve" in Crosby's demeanor heading into the game.
"He works tirelessly. He really enjoys the competition, putting it out there, laying it on the line," the coach said. "He was focused. He knew the opportunity he had. He did a big job on the big stage."
Crosby's three-point night gave him 13 points for the series. In head-to-head competition, Ovechkin finished with 14 points and a knee-on-knee hit on Sergei Gonchar, who was back after missing two games. While Crosby moves on while Ovechkin's season is over, their play was remarkable.
Robert Dvorchak can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .