Capitals strike early, thrash Penguins 5-2

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Washington Capitals' Nic Dowd, left, celebrates with teammates after scoring on Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (30) during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, March 7, 2020, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

PITTSBURGH, Pa. – The playoffs are still a month away. It just feels like they've already started for the Washington Capitals.

Dominant at the start and disciplined at the finish, the Capitals pushed the Pittsburgh Penguins around 5-2 on Saturday to give them a little breathing room over their longtime rivals in the crowded race for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division.

Nic Dowd scored early in the first period and again in the third to record the first multi-goal game of his career and Braden Holtby stopped 26 shots as first-place Washington built a 4-0 advantage en route to moving five points ahead of third-place Pittsburgh. Nicklas Backstrom and TJ Oshie also scored for the Capitals, who held the Penguins in check for long stretches while beating them for the second time in three tries this season.

“I think the win means a lot, but I think the way we played means more,” Oshie said. “Obviously, gave up a couple there late. But from the top all the way down, everyone had the same effort tonight.”

Washington captain Alexander Ovechkin failed to record a shot on goal in a regular season game against Pittsburgh for the first time in his long career but it hardly mattered. Dowd beat Matt Murray just 1:52 into the first period for his first goal in two months and added a shorthanded marker 34 seconds into the second to give the Capitals a commanding lead they never came close to squandering.

“It's not like I'm looking to go out there and score goals," Dowd said. “Yeah, it's great, but at the same time, just be responsible and play good defense. That leads to offense like it did tonight.”

Two days removed from a 6-5 loss to the New York Rangers in which they allowed Mika Zibanejad to score five times, Washington responded by controlling the first 40 minutes then weathering a brief rally late. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin scored in the third period for Pittsburgh to make it 4-2 before Oshie's 26th of the season with 6:48 to go put it out of reach.

Matt Murray finished with 23 saves for the Penguins but was undone by some sloppy defense in front of him during Washington's three-goal, first-period blitz. Pittsburgh has dropped 7 of 9 to fall a little off the pace in the Metropolitan Division.