Often when people hear the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals, instantly they think to the Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby comparisons. Quite frankly, a lot of people say they are tired of such frivolous banter about the players. Because of this, they feel they have a reason to believe that the rivalry between the Capitals and Penguins is a figment of the hockey media’s imagination.
Before you change the channel on a Capitals/Penguins game though, the truth is that there is real “bad blood” between the Caps and Pens, so to speak, and it goes so much further back than the league’s top two players. Memories that extend from the early 90′s to current times have formed and as the game has evolved from those times until now, so has this rivalry.
When Pittsburgh joined the Patrick Division in the 1981-82 season with the Capitals, Flyers, Islanders, and Rangers (at a later date, it included the Devils), they played each of those teams multiple times a year in the regular season. Just to put it into perspective, think of that team in your favorite team’s current division: there’s always that (at least) one team you always couldn’t wait to play and hated with a passion. It started with that with the Caps and Pens. As a result of the constant play in the regular season, the two teams would square off many times in the playoffs for a total of eight times in franchise history.
It did not take long for the rivalry to grow in Caps/Pens postseason matches. After the first series in 1990-91, the Capitals were plagued by comebacks in the next four out of seven series with the Penguins. The first major comeback occurred in only the second series between the two when Washington was up three games to one, but lost the next four games to lose the series in seven games.
The very next year, the Capitals were able to defeat Pittsburgh in six games in the first round. This, however, would be the first and only time the Caps would win a playoff series against the Penguins.
The very next season in 1994-95, Pittsburgh would return to its comeback ways and Washington to its playoff collapse as the Penguins came back once again from a 3-1 series lead for the Capitals, and the following season in 1995-96, a 2-0 Capitals series lead.
That ’96 playoff series featured one of the longest playoff overtimes in NHL history at 79 minutes and 15 seconds. It was just a little over 2 a.m. when the Penguins were on a power play in the fourth overtime and with a good sequence of cycling, Petr Nedved, a constant thorn in the Capitals’ side, scored the game-winner. Here is a video of the goal and celebration that followed. The Capitals would be unable to win another game after this one:
In that same series in Game Five, blood began to boil further as a full brawl. It started when Mark Tinordi for the Capitals and Alex Stojanov dropped the gloves after the faceoff and began to dance. Following this, while not too many other players got involved, the two head coaches, Bryan Trottier and Jim Schoenfeld, were jawing at each other at the benches, only the glass separating them. Of course, I couldn’t let you all go with out a video of that:
The comebacks and quality-time in the playoffs have given both teams a right to rival one another, and the Capitals and Penguins have gone through so many dramatic moments in these playoff matches (and even a few exciting games during the regular season over the years). Not only have the franchises grown to dislike each other, but the fans, having spent many years griping about the other fanbase, add to the intensity of the rivalry. After all, when a team has had your number for so many years, it’s very easy to dislike them and the fans that remind you of those disappointing moments.
In current times, as the game has changed and developed, so has this rivalry between the Penguins and the Capitals, with added dimensions. The difference is that this no longer features Mario Lemieux, Martin Straka, Petr Nedved, Peter Bondra, Mark Tinordi, Michal Pivonka, and Dale Hunter (although a most of them will be featured in Friday’s alumni game). Post-lockout though, featuring Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, Nicklas Backstrom, Matt Bradley Mike Green, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Maxime Talbot has continued to evolve into a nationally-recognized matchup.
As these teams progress, the rivalry intensifies. As Crosby said in a recent conference call, “It’s certainly grown.” Crosby continued, “You look at the playoffs and you look at the games that we’ve played against in the last few years, it’s pretty easy to build a rivalry that’s very intense.
“They’re physical and they’ve been really close games, so I think that’s a pretty natural progression as far as the two
teams are concerned.”
Capitals defenseman Mike Green, even though acknowledges that last Thursday’s game against the Penguins was only a regular season game, he mentioned its importance.
“It’s a bigger game in the sense that it was a good challenge for us and that we’re a good hockey team,” said Green. “We wanted to come out and test ourselves.”
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma said, “You talk about the hype and the build-up and the rivalry; the puck drops and it’s exactly what the build-up is.”
The current HBO 24/7 series, The Road to the NHL Winter Classic has even made excellent television off of this rivalry that both hockey fans and non-hockey fans can relate to, leading into the biggest showcasing for the NHL at the Winter Classic this Saturday.
Whether you follow the Blackhawks, the Islanders, the Capitals or the Penguins, this certainly a marquee matchup that will remain as such for a long time. If the 2011 Winter Classic game between Washington and Pittsburgh is anything like last Thursday’s 3-2 shootout thriller in DC, as Crosby said on Monday, “we’re in for a real treat.”