WASHINGTON (AP) – Alex Ovechkin got his first playoff hat trick. Sidney Crosby matched him, but his was too little, too late.

Ovechkin broke open a tie game with a pair of goals less than 3 minutes apart in the third period Monday night, leading the Washington Capitals to a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a 2-0 series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Ovechkin followed a one-timer from the left circle on a power-play with 7:07 to play with a slap shot from between the circles with 4:38 remaining. Both times he celebrated by launching his body into the glass, the second time as red hats flooded the Verizon Center rink.

Crosby did all the scoring for the Penguins to claim the NHL’s postseason lead with eight, but it was Ovechkin who had the winning hand in the matchup of the league’s marquee rivals with his fifth, sixth and seventh goals of the playoffs.

Game 3 is Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

Although they’re in a two-game hole, historians of the Pittsburgh-Washington rivalry will say the Penguins have the Capitals right where they want them. From 1991-2001, the Capitals lost five series in which they led the Penguins, including 2-0 leads in 1992 and 1996.

David Steckel, who had only eight goals in the regular season, got his second of the series and was the only goal-scorer not named Ovechkin or Crosby. Rookie playoff phenom Simeon Varlamov made 33 saves for the Capitals, including a pair of impressive stops during a 5-on-3 power play in the first period.

Evgeni Malkin, who won the league’s regular-season points title, failed to score a goal for the fifth straight game and committed the penalty that turned the momentum. At the very second the Capitals finished killing a penalty in the third period, Malkin was whistled for tripping with 7:11 remaining.

Nicklas Backstrom won the ensuing faceoff, and the puck went from Mike Green to Ovechkin, who beat Marc-Andre Fleury to the stick side.

Ovechkin’s third goal made it 4-2, and Crosby scored a power-play goal in the game’s final minute after Fleury was pulled for an extra attacker. Only three hats sailed to the rink to celebrate his three-goal feat.

There was no pretense of a loving relationship between the rivals. A physical first period included nine penalties and plenty of mini-tussles. Crosby bowled over Green while advancing with the puck in the first minute. The Capitals wasted a chance at a power play when Chris Clark decided to punch Kris Letang in the face after the whistle had stopped play for a Pittsburgh penalty. Ovechkin got sandwiched along the boards and was shoved around whenever possible; he and Chris Kunitz traded blows in period’s final minute.

An exchange between Washington’s Alexander Semin and Pittsburgh’s Brooks Orpik resulted in three penalties – two of them on Semin. The resulting power play produced the game’s first goal, when Crosby poked in a rebound under Varlamov’s left pad following Sergei Gonchar’s shot from the blue line.

The goal broke a four-game, 0-for-17 drought for the Penguins’ power play.

More rough stuff: Letang tackled Steckel from behind during a breakaway, giving the Capitals a power play. They didn’t score, but Letang nearly did when he popped out of the box and pounced on a long rebound for a breakaway that was denied by Varlamov.

The Penguins had 46 seconds of a 5-on-3 power play late in the period, but Varlamov, whose dexterous, how-did-he-do-that save on Crosby was the highlight of Game 1, made big back-to-back stops. He got his left pad on Crosby’s shot, then punched his glove straight up to knock away Gonchar’s rebound attempt.

The game was more disciplined in the second and third periods, with fewer penalties and more goals.

The Capitals tied the game early in the second on a Russian right-to-middle-to-left sequence. Sergei Fedorov spun and fed Viktor Kozlov, who moved the puck over to Ovechkin, who one-timed his shot from the left circle.

The Penguins grabbed the lead back when Crosby, again perched next to the crease, got his stick to a multi-deflected pass from Kunitz. The puck ping-ponged off Green and Varlamov before Crosby knocked it in.

Notes: Capitals D John Erskine was scratched after taking a shot off his right leg in Game 1. He was replaced by Tyler Sloan, who was called up from Hershey of the AHL earlier Monday. Karl Alzner was also promoted from Hershey and was a healthy scratch. … A sign in the arena said: “I Whine Less Than Crosby,” held by a baby sitting in the lap of a Capitals fan. … The game attracted two NFL coaches: the Washington Redskins’ Jim Zorn and the Baltimore Ravens’ John Harbaugh.

AP-ES-05-04-09 2212EDT

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