PITTSBURGH -- If this was a preview of the new NHL's version of Gretzky and Lemieux, Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin have much to look forward to in careers that are only beginning but promise to be very special.
Crosby weaved through two defensemen to score during Pittsburgh's four-goal first period, then helped hold off a Washington Capitals rally with a no-look, spin-move pass to set up Ziggy Palffy's second goal of the game in a 5-4 Penguins victory Tuesday night.
Playing before a standing room-only crowd of 16,978, energized by the first matchup of arguably the NHL's two most anticipated rookies since Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, Crosby didn't disappoint -- even if his team nearly did, almost squandering a 4-0 lead.
Ovechkin was limited to an assist on Matt Pettinger's goal in the third period, but repeatedly flashed the skills that have allowed him to score 15 goals in 21 games -- a remarkable pace for a rookie.
Afterward, Capitals coach Glen Hanlon said he hopes the two young stars -- Ovechkin is 20, Crosby 18 -- will give the league a showcase attraction by meeting in the playoffs someday soon.
"To see those two kids play at that level would be very exciting to watch," he said.
They're not bad right now, even if Ovechkin was stopped twice on 2-on-1 breaks and was turned aside by goalie Sebastien Caron on another excellent chance not long after Pittsburgh scored four goals in less than 10 minutes of the first period.
Ovechkin repeatedly outskated Pittsburgh's slower defensemen to get to the puck and start breaks the opposite way but, for now, is limited by the below-average talent that surrounds him.
"I thought I scored two goals, but I didn't score," said Ovechkin, who twice began to celebrate as if he did. "I must score when if I have a great chance to score. I'm disappointed because we lost this game and the first period was terrible."
Crosby repeatedly showed why Penguins general manager Craig Patrick says no teenager since Gretzky and Lemieux was so adept at both scoring goals and creating them.
Not long after Palffy and Ric Jackman scored less than three minutes apart to make it 2-0 midway through the first, Crosby kicked Palffy's pass onto his stick in the high slot and made a move to free himself from both Brendan Witt and Steve Eminger. On what effectively was a 1-on-2 rush, Crosby put a backhander past goalie Olaf Kolzig and under the crossbar for his 11th goal in 22 games.
"I just saw a little hole between the two D-men and I tried to hit it hard and break through and always try to make a move there," Crosby said.
The goal he set up was better.
With the Penguins trying to hold off the Capitals after Chris Clark and Brooks Laich scored 14 seconds apart to make it 4-2 in the second, Crosby collected the puck near the left wing boards. Then, in a single motion, he spun nearly 360 degrees to shed defenseman Jamie Heward and put a backhand pass directly on Palffy's stick at the side of the net for Palffy's ninth goal.
"He can be like Mario -- sometimes he's hard to read, you don't know what's going to happen," Palffy said. "He's very fun to play with."
Crosby's pass was out of the Gretzky book of playmaking, but he said he didn't copy the move.
"It's just reaction," he said. "I knew Ziggy was crashing, and I just tried to throw it along that lane. I was lucky it was there."
Ovechkin admired both Crosby plays, and said he is looking forward to a rivalry that brought an inordinate amount of Canadian media members to Pittsburgh for a Capitals-Penguins game in late November.
"I think he scored a beautiful goal and did a great job and he is good," Ovechkin said. "He scored a great goal and did a great job, and he controlled the puck beautifully. He's good."
Pettinger and Brian Willsie scored in the third to cut Pittsburgh's lead to a goal, but the Penguins held on despite being outshot 45-28 -- 35-16 in the final two periods.
Hanlon blamed the Capitals' slow start partly on his team admiring all of Pittsburgh's goal scorers, namely Lemieux, who was held scoreless.
"Some of the players were caught up with checking their sweaters and looking at their career numbers," he said. "I think we gave them too much respect."
Crosby leads NHL rookies with 27 points (11 goals, 16 assists) in 22 games and is on a pace to match Lemieux's 100-point rookie season in 1984-85, while Ovechkin has 22 points (15 goals, seven assists) in 21 games.
For comparison's sake, Crosby's scoring pace is higher than that of Martin St. Louis, who won the 2004 scoring championship for Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay with 94 points in 82 games. Ovechkin's is close to it.
- The Penguins scored four goals in the first period for the first time since Feb. 14, 2003, at New Jersey.
- Caron stopped 41 of 45 shots.
- Pittsburgh won for only the second time in six home games.
- The Capitals have lost nine of 11 on the road.