PITTSBURGH -- After some harsh early-season struggles during the middle 20 minutes of games, the Pittsburgh Penguins are now second to none.
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each had a goal and two assists during Pittsburgh's five-goal second period, and the Penguins moved into the top spot in the Eastern Conference with a 5-2 win against the Washington Capitals on Thursday night.
The victory was the first at home in regulation against the Capitals in almost six years for the Penguins (8-3-0), who extended the longest active winning streak in the NHL to five games.
"Everything's clicking ... Everyone's feeling good about their games," forward Pascal Dupuis said. "It's something that you want every night. It doesn't [always] happen, but you take it when it comes."
Scoreless for the first 26:59 of the game, Malkin tied it at 1-1 with a power-play tally. Less than six minutes later, Dupuis gave the Penguins the lead with the first of four Pittsburgh goals in a span of 6:49.
James Neal and Matt Cooke scored 11 seconds apart during that stretch, one that continued a startling reversal of fortune for the Penguins during second periods this season. Pittsburgh was outscored 11-2 in the middle period of its first six games. In its next five, the Penguins have outscored opponents in the second by that same 11-2 margin.
"The big thing was the couple games at home here early where we didn't play well," Neal said. "It was kind of an eye-opener early in the season, and I think we're glad that happened early. We got that out of the way, and we've definitely had a different mindset ever since then. We've been playing some good hockey, and hopefully we can keep it going."
Washington has been outscored 19-6 in the second this season. Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro each had a goal and an assist for the Capitals, who have lost three in a row and five of six.
Veteran defenseman Tom Poti did not play due to an upper-body injury for Washington, which lost in regulation in Pittsburgh for the first time since Feb. 18, 2007. The Caps had been 9-0-1 in their last 10 visits.
After the game, Ovechkin was visibly agitated. Although the captain and two-time scoring champion appears to be breaking out of his personal slump -- he has five points in his past five games after having only one in his first six -- the losing appears to be taking its toll.
Ovechkin was asked how angry he was.
What went wrong?
"Second period ... Didn't play ... No emotion."
The big second period was Pittsburgh's first five-goal period since the first 20 minutes of a Jan. 5, 2011, win against Tampa Bay.
Incidentally, that was the final game that season that Crosby would play due to his head and neck injuries. A week prior to that, Crosby had a 25-game scoring streak snapped. He currently has at least a point in each of his past six games -- his longest such streak since the 25-game run in late 2010.
Crosby's goal Thursday, his fifth of the season, displayed his remarkable hand-eye coordination -- he batted a puck out of mid-air into a virtually empty net at 19:38.
"We did a lot of good things," Crosby said of the second-period outburst. "Sometimes you get the results when you do that, and sometimes you don't. It's nice to get rewarded, but it doesn't always mean you'll produce five goals in a period -- it might still be tied. Right now, we're just confident in the way we're playing. We believe in the way we're playing and we know that at the end of the game we'll hopefully get result we want."
Crosby's was the third power-play goal of the period for the Penguins. He also assisted on Malkin's tally with the extra man when he fed him a cross-ice pass 10 seconds after Karl Alzner was called for interference. Malkin was wide-open as he walked in from the left circle and fired a wrist shot that beat Michal Neuvirth high and just inside the far corner for his third of the season.
Crosby added another assist 5:50 later when Dupuis finished a strong transition play for his fourth of the season. Four Pittsburgh players touched the puck in a matter of seconds as play moved from the Penguins' end all the way down to Dupuis sliding a bouncing puck through Neuvirth, causing Capitals coach Adam Oates to pull his 24-year-old goalie.
"It got even worse after I got in," replacement Braden Holtby said.
First, it was a Neal power-play goal -- the reigning 40-goal man's first home tally of the season -- at 16:33.
Cooke quickly made it 4-1 with his second, a shot immediately after Brandon Sutter cleanly won a faceoff in the left circle to him. Cooke's low wrist shot was in the net inside the right post before Holtby ever saw it.
The Penguins' big period came without power-play quarterback Kris Letang. The defenseman was scratched for the first time this season due to a lower-body injury.
About the only thing that went wrong for the Penguins was allowing the opponent to open the scoring for only the second time in 11 games this season. Ribeiro scored 4:12 into the contest when he beat a helmet-less Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins argued the goal should not have been allowed, but it correctly was upheld. When a goalie loses his helmet while the opposing team has possession of the puck, Rule 9.5 states that "play shall only be stopped if there is no immediate and impending scoring opportunity."
Ovechkin earned an assist on the play, and he completed his first multiple-point game of the season by scoring a power-play goal with 11:26 left. But it wasn't nearly enough to avoid the Capitals dropping to an NHL-worst 2-8-1.
"There's not a whole lot of confidence in our abilities right now," forward Troy Brouwer said. "We did look deflated because we were."