If we came into this week trending towards a first-round Penguins-Capitals postseason rematch, Pittsburgh has done its part to snuff out the Caps before the NHL's second season can even begin.
Sidney Crosby scored his 31st of the year, Lee Stempniak added another critical assist and Marc-Andre Fleury pitched his fifth shutout of the season to lead the Penguins past the Washington Capitals on Tuesday, 2-0.
It was Pittsburgh's eighth-straight victory against Washington.
"Every time we play them it's really intense," Fleury said.
Pittsburgh (44-17-4, 92 points) swept their season series with the Capitals in taking the first two games of a rivalrous set of home-and-homes this week, extending their lead in the Metropolitan Division to 18 points ahead of the upcoming weekend series with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Washington (30-27-10, 70 points) has fallen to sixth in the eight-team Metropolitan and dropped five of their last six games.
Fleury earned his league-leading 34th victory of the season Tuesday, stopping all 32 Capitals shots including 20 in a frantic third period. It was his second shutout of the Caps this season and fifth total, tying his career single-season high while improving his record to 34-14-3 on the year.
"Never had many shutouts in a season, I guess," Fleury said, "but [I'm] looking forward to trying to beat that one, for sure."
On the other side of the puck, Pittsburgh outshot its opponent for just the second time since the Olympic break, topping the Caps with a 34-32 shots advantage that somehow survived a manic third period in which the Caps landed 20 shots on Fleury but were unable to put one home.
Crosby (31) and Jussi Jokinen (17) added the markers for the Pens, who have now won three straight following some unbalanced play since the break.
Crosby's team-leading 31st of the year extended his NHL points lead to 15 over second-place Phil Kessel of Toronto. Crosby (31-57-88) is on pace for 110 points this season, but could see his per-game pace pick up down the stretch run now that Stempniak seems to be settling in nicely in Pascal Dupuis's vacated right wing position.
In four games since joining the Penguins, Stempniak has played three contests on a line with Crosby and Chris Kunitz and added three assists in that time. Crosby, Kunitz and Stempniak have combined for four goals and 10 points in three games together, and their familiarity with one another has visibly improved in each contest.
Pittsburgh also reunited Jokinen with regular linemates Evgeni Malkin and James Neal Tuesday after experimenting with new line combinations, and the second line found itself suddenly rejuvenated. Malkin and Matt Niskanen teamed up to assist on Jokinen's first-period tally that came just after a stretch of 13:45 of uninterrupted play.
Despite the third-period flourish, Alex Ovechkin finished the game with just two shots on goal and was held to 1 goal and no assists in four games against the Penguins this season.
Pittsburgh now gets three days off before opening a home-and-home series with the Philadelphia Flyers this weekend.