WASHINGTON -- Nicklas Backstrom is, and always will be, a playmaker.
He's contending for the scoring lead among NHL rookies because he sets up goals, not because he scores them.
Give him the puck in the front of the net, though, and Backstrom can bury it.
He proved that yesterday, when he rifled a shot past Washington goalie Cristobal Huet -- who just happens to be his teammate -- with 27.9 seconds left in regulation to break a 2-2 tie in what became a 4-2 Penguins victory at the Verizon Center.
"That," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said, "was officially heartbreaking."
Not for the Penguins (39-24-7), who climbed back to within a point of first-place New Jersey in the Eastern Conference. The Capitals, though, absorbed a potentially mortal blow to their playoff hopes after losing on a late goal for the second day in a row.
"We've been on the other side of that," said Penguins center Sidney Crosby, who was credited with the winner. "It's not fun. Obviously, it's a big break for us."
Backstrom fled the arena without speaking with reporters, but was exonerated -- or at least forgiven -- by his co-workers.
"Bad breaks like that happen," Capitals center Brooks Laich said. "We don't want [Backstrom] to beat himself up because he played a great hockey game for us."
So did many his teammates, as they have a lot in recent months.
The Capitals are 26-16-7 since Boudreau replaced Glen Hanlon as coach and, if not for a wretched start, would be competing for playoff seeding now instead of having to overcome steep odds just to qualify.
"They're physical, they have tons of skill and they have solid goaltending," Crosby said. "They're a pretty complete team."
The Capitals showed that for much of the afternoon.
"For 50 minutes, I definitely thought we were the better team," Boudreau said.
Hard to argue, given the Capitals' 33-13 advantage in shots in the first two periods, although the Penguins controlled the play for much of the final 20 minutes.
"We gave a pretty good push there in the third period," Crosby said. "We could have had a couple."
The Penguins' closing kick might not have mattered if they hadn't gotten a strong effort from goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who turned aside 36 of 38 shots.
"He played solid, especially early on," Crosby said. "It could have been a lot different game."
It was a good rebound performance for Fleury, who had been yanked from the Penguins' 5-2 loss in Florida Thursday after allowing three goals in the first period.
"Especially after we pulled him out of the last game, I wanted to give him a chance to bounce back," coach Michel Therrien said. "I really think he did a great job."
Laich staked the Capitals to a 1-0 lead at 7:23 of the second and, after Petr Sykora and Crosby countered for the Penguins, Alexander Semin pulled Washington even 13.2 seconds before the second intermission.
Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik was in the penalty box for both Washington goals. In fact, the two minors he took led to the Capitals having two two-man advantages.
His first penalty was for slashing, the second for roughing Backstrom while they vied for a loose puck.
"The first one was just a stupid penalty," Orpik said. "The second one, I thought I shared the opinion of most of the guys in here -- I thought it was just a battle. That guy [Backstrom] is a pretty good player, but he goes down pretty easy."
If so, karma got Backstrom back in a big way in the final half-minute of regulation.
"Bad breaks like that happen," said the Capitals' Alex Ovechkin.
The Penguins know all about those -- key members of the team have lost an awful lot of man-games to injury this season -- but they have reason to be upbeat heading into the final dozen games of the regular season.
Crosby had his best showing since returning from a high ankle sprain Tuesday, and Therrien said Marian Hossa "hopefully" will return from a sprained knee when Buffalo visits Mellon Arena Wednesday.
Adding a goal-scorer such as Hossa can't hurt. There will, after all, be times when the Penguins have to score some key goals for themselves.
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published March 10, 2008 4:00 AM