The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins will renew hostilities for the first time this season on Sunday. In a unique scheduling scenario, the division rivals went four months into the season without crossing each other’s paths but are now set to face-off four times in the next seven weeks.
Each contest will be a weekend matinee, with three of the four games being broadcast nationwide in the U.S. on NBC including the upcoming affair on Sunday. The Caps and Pens have a long, storied history between them and once again find themselves sitting one-two in the Metropolitan Division as we embark on the stretch drive of the 2019-20 season.
The Caps/Pens rivalry dates all the way back to 1991 when the two teams first met in the postseason. Led by superstar Mario Lemieux, Pittsburgh dispatched of Washington in five games in the Patrick Division finals en route to their first Stanley Cup title in franchise history.
The two clubs met again the following season in the opening round of the playoffs. This time the battle lasted seven games but once again the Pens came out on top and once again they would go on to win the Stanley Cup, dropping just two games the rest of the way.
Over the course of the next decade, Pittsburgh and Washington met five more times to open the playoffs with the Penguins winning four of those series and the Capitals prevailing once in 1994. Following the 2001 postseason, both clubs fell on hard times and the rivalry fizzled out. That is until a pack of young superstars arrived on the scene and launched the conflict to another level.
Crosby vs. Ovechkin
In 2005-06 Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby took the NHL by storm. The two phenoms both cleared the 100-point plateau in their rookie seasons and finished one-two in voting for the Calder Trophy, with Ovi coming out on top. Since then their careers have been forever linked. Their arrival on the NHL stage, along with fellow young stars Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom, brought both franchises back to relevance and re-ignited a rivalry that lay dormant for half a decade.
In 2009, the Capitals and Penguins renewed postseason hostilities in what quickly became one of the greatest playoff series of the 21st century. In Game 2 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals, Ovechkin and Crosby went shot-for-shot in an instant classic. Both players recorded hat tricks that night in a 4-3 Capitals victory that gave Washington a 2-0 series lead.
The Penguins bounced back with two wins on home ice, however, before Malkin beat Semyon Varlamov in overtime of Game 5 to put Pittsburgh on the brink of a trip to the Eastern Conference Final. The Capitals responded with an overtime win of their own in Game 6 but in the deciding seventh game, Pittsburgh stunned the Washington home crowd with a 6-2 blowout victory. The Pens went on to capture their third Stanley Cup later that spring, while the Caps suffered through another playoff heartbreak.
Beasts of the Metro
In 2013, the NHL realigned and the Metropolitan Division was born. This move put the Capitals and Penguins in the same division for the first time since the days of the old Patrick Division. A new playoff format also set the stage for more inter-division rivalries in the postseason.
In the six seasons since realignment, the Penguins haven’t missed the postseason, while Washington has qualified for the playoffs five times. The two clubs also met in the second round of the postseason in three consecutive years from 2016-2018.
Washington and Pittsburgh entered both the 2016 and 2017 playoffs as the two best teams in the Eastern Conference. The Caps won the Presidents’ Trophy in both seasons, posting a franchise-best 56 wins in 2015-16 and following that up with 55 wins the next year. Washington was unable to translate that regular-season success into the playoffs, as Pittsburgh continued to dominant the head-to-head match-up.
Pittsburgh knocked off the Caps in six games in the 2016 playoffs thanks to Nick Bonino’s OT winner in the clinching game. The following year Washington erased a 3-1 series deficit but couldn’t solve Marc-Andre Fleury in Game 7, losing 2-0 on home ice. The loss capped off a brutal decade of postseason hockey for Washington. Despite making the playoffs nine times in the previous 10 seasons, the Capitals were unable to get out of the second round a single time.
In 2018 everything changed. Washington won its third-straight division title and entered the playoffs more battle-tested than they had been the previous two years. After erasing a 2-0 deficit to defeat Columbus in six games, Washington once again found themselves face-to-face with Crosby, Malkin, and the Penguins.
A Game 1 loss on home ice had Capitals fans fearing the worst but a convincing bounce-back victory in Game 2 evened up the series. The two teams then split games three and four in Pittsburgh before the series shifted back to Capital One Arena in Washington.
The Penguins held a 3-2 lead after 40 minutes of Game 5 before Washington stormed back with four unanswered goals in the third to take the series lead. Two nights later Ovechkin sprung Evgeny Kuznetsov for the overtime winner in Game 6 and at long last Washington eliminated their bitter rivals.
Seven hard-fought games against the Tampa Bay Lightning came next, followed by the greatest save in franchise history. Then on June 7, 2018, the Capitals defeated the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of the Stanley Cup Final to capture their first championship. The monumental victory came one month to the day after Washington eliminated Pittsburgh and exorcised the playoff demons that haunted the franchise for almost 40 years.
The Next Chapter
Overall, the Penguins and Capitals have met 225 times in the regular season. Pittsburgh has won 111 of those meetings while Washington has 98 victories. The other 16 games ended in a tie. Pittsburgh holds a 40-28 edge in postseason victories and has won nine of the 11 playoff series played between the two clubs.
The recent history has been even tighter. Over the past five years, the teams have met 21 times in the regular season. Pittsburgh has won 11 of those contests and the Capitals have won 10.
After bowing out in the opening round of the 2019 playoffs, both the Caps and Pens are back with something to prove in 2020. Entering play on Saturday, Washington sits atop the Metro with 75 points while Pittsburgh is in second place, six points back. Neither team has won the Stanley Cup without going through the other and there is a good chance they will cross paths once again this spring if they want to return to the Final.
With eight big points on the horizon, these four matchups will go a long way to deciding how the playoff seeding shakes out in the Eastern Conference. Hockey fans in Washington, Pittsburgh, and throughout the world are sure to be locked in as another chapter is written to the best modern rivalry in the game.
Capitals contributor for THW. Lifelong sports fan, grew up in various hockey rinks throughout Alberta.