WASHINGTON -- You might have figured that nominations were closed after Capitals' defenseman Shaone Morrisonn altered Sidney Crosby's consciousness midway through the first period, but nominations for the most spectacular bombing of a high-value target went right through 60 minutes of ultra-physical hockey, 60 minutes that must have played on NBC like Global Gladiators.
Sid melted woozily to one knee after Morrisonn's assault in the high slot, but recovered to ram his tormentor minutes later, just as Jarkko Ruutu drilled Capitals centers Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich, just as Alexander Ovechkin blasted Evgeni Malkin into the center ice boards in the game's opening minutes, right after Brooks Orpik dropped Ovechkin in the Penguins' goal crease practically before the anthem had ended.
"In the first period, I think there [were] more hits than shots," Crosby said after the Penguins' collision-choked, 4-2 victory here yesterday, a nationally televised episode played so chaotically that the winning goal accidentally was stuffed past Washington goaltender Christobal Huet by teammate Nicklas Backstrom.
There was ample concern for Backstrom's mental health in the immediate aftermath, but the Penguins weren't offering any apologies, instead bolting for the airport on a fresh wave of evidence that they are playoff ready in the most physical sense.
"There's something about these guys," a very nearly beaming Michel Therrien was saying in a Verizon Center concourse late yesterday afternoon. "I'm not worried about the physical aspect of hockey with these guys. They've got a lot of character; they've been through a lot of adversity, and that's how I know they have character."
They also have the two points they swiped in the final minute to match the two the New Jersey Devils swiped in the final minute Saturday night in Toronto, slicing the distance between them at the top of the Eastern Conference to a single point again with four weeks remaining in the regular season.
"We knew coming in here that they were going to play a very physical game," said Penguins winger Ryan Malone. "But we had a lot of fans here from Pittsburgh, and it was just a tremendous atmosphere, really a playoff atmosphere.
"The Capitals really brought everything; they were finishing their checks. In that kind of situation, when you know you're going to get banged off the puck, you've got to be really careful every time the puck is on your stick. Any mistake can be decisive."
In the kind of tight-checking affair on which the Capitals have insisted of late -- they had allowed only 11 goals in their previous seven games -- Crosby could have thought he'd decided it late in the second period when he swept the rebound of a Malkin blast behind Huet for his first goal since Jan. 12 and a 2-1 lead, but the residue of the continuous banging caught up with the Penguins when Orpik went off for roughing a minute later, causing a 5-on-3 predicament for the second time in the game.
Alexander Semin cashed that in with only 13.2 seconds remaining in the period, a significant goal in that Washington was 0-24-2 when trailing after two.
"For 50 minutes, we were definitely the better team," said Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau, "but you could see they turned it up a notch in the last 10 minutes. Chris [Huet] had to make a couple really, really good saves to keep us in it. I thought we got to the last minute, we were fine, we're going to take it to overtime and we usually have some success there. But, as it turns out, that's not the way it happened."
It happened that with the clock blinking past 0:30, Backstrom had just cleared himself of Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis on Huet's doorstep, just as Crosby got the puck in the left faceoff circle and whipped it past Malone through the slot. Backstrom tried to rake it out of danger into the corner behind him, but instead banged it past Huet.
Generally you can't count on a winning goal from someone in the other sweater, but the fact is the Penguins brought so much heat from so many talented offensemen at the climax of this one that the Capitals did a superb job merely surviving into the final seconds. It was the kind of excellence that could carry them toward May, and it wasn't lost on anyone that it came at the end of a very rough couple of hours.
"That was the kind of game that proves our character," said defenseman Ryan Whitney. "When you see Ruutu and Orpik with so many big hits, taking it to them, you know we can win that way, whether their guy puts it in or not."
Gene Collier can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1283.