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PITTSBURGH – The first shift of Mike Sullivan's tenure as Penguins coach went brilliantly. Pittsburgh put the puck deep in the Washington Capitals' end and spent a solid minute darting around the zone as if playing an elaborate game of keep away.
Then the adrenaline faded and the reality set in.
The volatile Penguins remain a muddled work in progress. The Capitals are not.
T.J. Oshie scored twice and added an assist as Washington spoiled Sullivan's debut with a 4-1 win on Monday night. The victory propelled the Capitals into the top spot in the Eastern Conference standings and 11 points clear of their struggling rivals.
"We were stressing it quite a bit before the game, that they were going to come out with some intensity, they're going to try to impress their new coach," Oshie said. "I thought we did a good job of matching their intensity and having a good start."
Nicklas Backstrom added a goal and two assists for Washington. John Carlson scored his fifth of the season and Braden Holtby stopped 44 of Pittsburgh's season-high 45 shots.
"It was a lot of shots, but I think we did a pretty good job battling in front and keeping those second opportunities to the minimum," Holtby said.
Evgeni Malkin scored his team-leading 14th goal and Marc-Andre Fleury made 30 saves, but the Penguins failed to keep pace with Washington in the team's first game since firing Mike Johnston on Saturday.
Enter Sullivan, who stressed he doesn't think the Penguins need to be rebuilt so much as refocused. While he saw some things he liked against one of the NHL's best teams, Sullivan knows there is plenty to work on after spending three periods watching the Capitals effectively counterpunch every time it seemed as though Pittsburgh was generating momentum.
"We can't get discouraged, just more determined," Sullivan said.
It will take a kind of grit that has only come in spurts for a lineup that boasts a pair of scoring champions in Malkin and Sidney Crosby but has somehow struggled to score. Crosby fueled Pittsburgh's electric first shift but remains stuck on six goals.
"I thought our effort was there," Crosby said. "We generated some good chances. I think execution-wise he wants us to make a few more plays coming out of our end and to be a little bit more poised in that area."
There are no such issues in Washington, which is off to the best start in the franchise's 41-year history by finding a way to both take advantage of Alex Ovechkin's dynamic offensive play while also paying attention to detail at the other end of the ice.
Washington needed just more than 7 minutes to build a two-goal lead. Backstrom took a backhand feed from Oshie and cruised down the slot before beating Fleury over his glove. Carlson doubled Washington's advantage 7:04 into the first by flipping his own rebound past Fleury as Pittsburgh's defense scrambled to protect the front of the net.
Malkin's slick redirect off a shot from Ben Lovejoy pulled Pittsburgh to 2-1 by the end of the period, but Holtby withstood a steady barrage and when Oshie tucked a nifty wraparound past Fleury 8:50 into the third period, Washington was on its way to a third straight win in Pittsburgh.
"I think we're pretty good when we score the first one and we got 2-0 there in the first," Backstrom said. "So that was obviously big for us and I thought we managed the game well."
NOTES: Pittsburgh made defenseman Rob Scuderi a late healthy scratch and then shipped him to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for D Trevor Daley. ... Former Penguins forward Pascal Dupuis said he is at peace with his decision last week to retire due to medical concerns. The 36-year-old Dupuis was attempting to come back from blood clots that forced him to miss most of the 2014-15 season when he decided last Tuesday continuing to play wasn't worth the risk. "The selfish way of doing this would have been to ignore all the signs and push everything aside and to just keep playing," Dupuis said. ... Pittsburgh forward Beau Bennett left in the first period after getting knocked into the boards by Oshie. Bennett did not return and Sullivan said he expects Bennett to be out "for a little while." ... Washington hosts Ottawa on Wednesday. Pittsburgh begins a home-and-home series against the Bruins on Wednesday in Boston.