WASHINGTON - 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 three minutes apart in the third period last night, leading the Washington Capitals to a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins and a two-games-to-none series lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

Ovechkin followed a one-timer from the left circle on a power-play with 7 minutes, 7 seconds 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. Game 3 is tomorrow 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 five-on-three 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 face-off, and the puck went from Mike Green to Ovechkin. 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.

Pittsburgh 1 1 1 – 3

Washington 0 2 2 – 4

First period: 1, Pittsburgh, Crosby 6 (Gonchar, Letang), 6:38 (pp). Penalties: Orpik, Pit (roughing), 5:28; Semin, Was (roughing, high-sticking), 5:28; Staal, Pit (charging), 6:58; Letang, Pit (tripping), 9:52; Guerin, Pit (slashing), 13:11; Clark, Was (elbowing), 13:11; Poti, Was (interference), 16:18; Green, Was (tripping), 17:32.

Second period: 2, Washington, Ovechkin 5 (Kozlov, Fedorov), 2:18. 3, Pittsburgh, Crosby 7 (Kunitz, Guerin), 10:57. 4, Washington, Steckel 2 (Sloan, Pothier), 15:49. Penalties: Dupuis, Pit (delay of game), 3:24; Kunitz, Pit (cross-checking), 18:22.

Third period: 5, Washington, Ovechkin 6 (Green, Backstrom), 12:53 (pp). 6, Washington, Ovechkin 7 (Kozlov, Fedorov), 15:22. 7, Pittsburgh, Crosby 8 (Malkin, Sykora), 19:29 (pp). Penalties: Jurcina, Was (interference), 10:49; Malkin, Pit (tripping), 12:49; Jurcina, Was (cross-checking), 18:19.

Shots on Goal: Pittsburgh 13-16-7–36. Washington 11-15-7–33.

Power-play opportunities: Pittsburgh 2 of 5; Washington 1 of 5.

Goalies: Pittsburgh, Fleury 4-4-0 (33 shots-29 saves). Washington, Varlamov 6-2-0 (36-33).

A: 18,277 (18,277). T: 2:30.

Referees: Marc Joannette, Kelly Sutherland. Linesmen: Thor Nelson, Jean Morin.