The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins compete in one of the fiercest rivalries, not just on the ice, but in all of sports. The last 16 years consisted of some of the most heightened drama due to the presence of generational superstars. It began with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby in 2005, Evgeni Malkin was added to the mix a year later, and Nicklas Backstrom joined shortly after.
The fact that these four players have stayed loyal to their respective franchises during this span is extraordinary and appreciated by hockey lovers. Yet, this summer has proved that the end is approaching as injuries are becoming more of a burden for each mid-30s-something. Crosby, Malkin, and Backstrom will miss the start of 2021-22, and Ovechkin is coming off a season in which he was banged up. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any greatness left.
Capitals and Penguins Have Enchanted the NHL for Decades
There was no sign of defense or a quick glove on the night of Apr. 19, 1991. The Pittsburgh crowd crammed into Civic Arena, anxious to tie the divisional series against Washington, but the worry grew as Dale Hunter buried the opening goal of the evening for the Capitals. Less than a minute later, Phil Bourque equalized for the Penguins, and the subsequent onslaught of tallies, highlighted by a three-goal third period from Washington, proved regulation just wasn’t good enough. The fans yearned for more, and after Kevin Stevens won the game for Pittsburgh in overtime, they were unaware that this 7-6 victory was the start of torment, bitterness, and mutual disdain between franchises. It was the start of something special.
But imagine if the Capitals were to have taken that second game. History could have been altered. However, since hindsight and the present prevents of from living through what-ifs, and we have no real way of entering alternate universes outside of a movie script or novel (yet), the path each franchise has taken since that moment is concrete.
The two franchises have maintained a similar ebb and flow of failure and success. Washington and Pittsburgh were great in the ‘90s; the former reached the postseason eight of 10 years, and the latter made the playoffs every season during the decade. Washington did have more regular-season success in the ‘80s than Pittsburgh, but it took nine years before the franchise made their first postseason appearance. The Penguins reached the playoffs four out of their first nine seasons.
|Franchise||Start||All-Time Record||Playoff Appearances||Stanley Cups|
Pittsburgh leads the rivalry with an overall record of 118-102-16, but from 2001-2007, it was a competition of which team could be the worst bottom-dweller in the Eastern Conference. Each franchise finished last in their respective divisions for at least three straight seasons, but in 2007-08, they were soon both at the top, and a collision course was inevitable. From that season on, Pittsburgh has made 15 straight playoff appearances and Washington has made 14 of 15. The Penguins have only finished first in their division five times, while the Capitals have dominated the regular season with 10 division titles.
The Elephant on the Ice
Crosby and Ovechkin get most of the attention because of their year-to-year hype and being the faces of their franchises and the entire NHL for a majority of their careers. Yet, before Backstrom finalized the quartet, the new relevancy of the rivalry hadn’t developed its full potential. Since 2007, Backstrom’s first season, Pittsburgh leads Washington 32-27 in 59 regular-season games. Pretty close, but the postseason is where the separation lies. Enter the elephant on the ice and ride it to the trophy room.
In their storied rivalry, the franchises have met in the playoffs 11 times. Pittsburgh has won nine of those series, including that 1991 battle that started it all, with a 40-28 head-to-head record. Nine of the series have gone at least six games. Out of the six total Stanley Cups these teams share, each championship year one had to go through the other, but they have never met in a Conference Final. Four of these meetings and four of these Cups took place during this generation, the Penguins with a strong 3-1 series advantage (16-12 record).
Right now, however, it’s not about postseason success (says the Capitals’ fan) – it’s about the sustainability of greatness. That dismal stretch during the early-2000s shouldn’t be viewed as a failure because the Capitals drafted Ovechkin and Backstrom and the Penguins drafted Crosby and Malkin.
|Player||Year Drafted||Selection||NHL Debut||Games Played||Goals||Assists||Points|
|Alexander Ovechkin||2004||No. 1||Oct. 5, 2005||1,197||730||590||1,320|
|Sidney Crosby||2005||No. 1||Oct. 5, 2005||1,039||486||839||1,325|
|Evgeny Malkin||2004||No. 2||Oct. 18, 2006||940||424||680||1104|
|Nicklas Backstrom||2006||No. 4||Oct. 5, 2007||1,011||258||722||980|
An appreciation of this generation is league-wide and not just specific to Washington and Pittsburgh. What hockey fans were able to witness these past 15 seasons and counting was more than a rivalry, it was greatness at its finest.
Alexander Ovechkin (2005-Present)
Ovechkin, 36, scored two goals in his NHL debut. He won the Calder Trophy over Crosby in 2006, and has made eight All-Star teams and earned the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy, given to the league’s top goalscorer, nine times. He has won the Hart Memorial three times and the Art Ross and Conn Smythe once. However, winning a title had alluded to him and created a critical narrative on his career, until 2018 when Washington won their first and only Stanley Cup. He also has three World Championship golds and one World Junior Championship gold with Russia.
Ovechkin has the opportunity to do something incredible if he stays healthy: break what was seemingly an unbreakable Wayne Gretzky record. The Great One scored 894 goals in 1,487 games played, but the Great Eight sits at 730 through 1,197 games. For readers who don’t want to bust out a calculator, the Russian has scored .61 goals per game in his career while Gretzky’s average was .60. That doesn’t prove anything, but if Ovechkin, who just signed a five-year contract this summer, averages 33 goals each of those seasons, he breaks the record. He has only not reached 33 goals in a season three times, and two of those campaigns were drastically shortened.
The prolific goalscorer has been very durable throughout his NHL tenure, which is especially surprising considering his physical style of play. Yet, last season he missed seven games due to a leg injury and competed in the playoffs with a back injury.
Sidney Crosby (2005-Present)
Crosby, 34, recorded his first assist in his first career game, and three days later scored his first goal. His career isn’t just about his playmaking ability and massive production; he’s a winner. The Canadian has three Stanley Cups, two Olympic gold medals, and one World Championship, World Cup, and World Junior Championship gold each. He has made eight All-Star games and earned two Art Ross, Hart Memorial, and Conn Smythe trophies, as well as three Ted Lindsay Awards.
With all these accolades, he’s only played one full season (2017-18). He will miss the first six weeks of this season after undergoing wrist surgery. Though his numbers are still there, it’s difficult to predict how much longer he can go because of his new and old ailments. The center is under contract with the Penguins for the next four seasons, which, if fulfilled, will be a hall-of-fame career that spanned two decades. If he averages 383.25 points a season, he will break Wayne Gretzky’s point record. Okay, let’s be realistic here. If he averages 75 points a season, he could finish in the top 10.
Evgeni Malkin (2006-Present)
Malkin, 35, made his debut a month after injuring his shoulder in the 2006-07 preseason (foreshadowing much?). It didn’t seem to affect him that much; the forward scored a goal in each of the first six games of his career.
Like Ovechkin, Malkin won the Calder, but the Russian hasn’t had as productive of a career as his countryman counterpart. He certainly has been no slouch, however. He has taken home the Art Ross twice, and the Hart, Conn Smythe, and Ted Lindsay once each. In addition, he has been invited to seven All-Star games. Alongside Crosby, Malkin has won three Cups, and alongside Ovechkin, he has won gold twice at the World Championships.
Malkin has been burdened by health issues throughout his career. Since 2009, he hasn’t completed a full campaign, and some of those seasons he didn’t even come close. He has injured both his knees, his right requiring surgery, has suffered through concussions and shoulder issues, and a slew of additional lower-body ailments. Last season he missed 23 games, and 2021-22 will be no different.
The winger is set to miss at least the first two months of the season after another surgery to his knee. Malkin is an unrestricted free agent next summer and his current contract eats up $9.5 million worth of cap space, so it will be intriguing to see what the Penguins do with the veteran.
Niklas Backstrom (2007-Present)
Backstrom, 33, registered his first assist in his first career game and is heralded by one of the best playmakers in history. The Swedish ranks 50th all-time in assists, and during the 2010s, actually recorded more helpers than Crosby. If he plays out the next four years of his current contract, he could become the 14th player ever to eclipse 1,000 assists. It’s a possibility because Backstrom’s production has been steady, and even increased, over the last three seasons.
The most asinine things to note are that Backstrom has only been selected to one All-Star game in his career and has never really been considered for a high-profile individual trophy. He did, however, win the Stanley Cup with Ovechkin in 2018, and also has two World Championship gold medals in his hardware collection.
Though Backstrom’s play has been at the forefront of criticism by analysts, it’s almost unwarranted considering his steady production and past durability. He has played in 94% of regular-season games since he started. For perspective, Crosby has played in 84% and Malkin has skated in 81%. With that being said, he most likely will miss the start of the season due to a hip injury.
What’s Next for the Capitals and Penguins?
Both the Capitals and Penguins don’t have the most heralded of systems in the league, but that’s just the common wax and wane of rebuilds and successes. Eventually, franchises must go through a transition. If any immediate changes happen to the rivalry, it probably will involve Malkin. The forward is injury-prone and a free agent after this season. Perhaps an influenced retirement may be in the cards.
Ovechkin and Crosby will finish out their careers in the only sweaters they have known, but the next four to five years may glide by. Backstrom, however, is at risk of being trade bait. It would take a major collapse by Washington, but it’s a slim possibility. Chances are, he retires from the NHL before that happens.
Capitals and Penguins Should Bask in These Last Years of Greatness
As mentioned, three of these four stars will miss the start of 2021-22. The NHL is better when these skaters are on the ice, so it’s in everyone’s best interest they remain healthy, not just Capitals and Penguins supporters.
The rivalry shall eternally remain, but though passionate competition portrays division on the surface, it actually brings people together. On the ice, the players battle for glory, exchange un-pleasantries, and ultimately shake hands out of respect. The same can be said for fan bases. Capitals and Penguins supporters should consider themselves lucky, not just for the skaters who represented their franchises, but the immense talent they were able to witness from the opposition.
Let us all bask in these last years of greatness. Heated exchanges are welcome. A handshake, after all, is said and done is expected. We should thank Ovi, Sid, Malkin, and Backstrom, but we don’t have to do so quite yet.
Carl Knauf is an author and master journalist (so the degree says). He specializes in sports–primarily hockey–music, and the publishing industry. His sports writing has been featured on The Hockey Writers, Last Word On Sports, and local newspapers in his home state of New Mexico. Carl covers the Washington Capitals with accurate reporting and detailed analysis to help readers answer basic and burning questions such as, “Why did the Capitals not win the Stanley Cup (again)?”
Carl greatly enjoys interacting with his audience (except trolls who he refuses to embarrass with a response). Please use the comment section at the bottom of every THW article, and also feel free to chat with and follow him on Twitter. For interview and feature requests, please visit his Muck Rack profile.