Hello darkness, my old friend
I’ve come to talk with you again
– Simon and Garfunkel
It’s been seven years since the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals faced one another in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
That drought will end this week when, for the ninth time in history, these two teams battle again in their Eastern Conference Semifinal series.
The comparisons to their epic 2009 seven-game showdown will undoubtedly be at the forefront of all the talk that goes on in the coming days, and for good reason.
They are numerous.
And this time around should be no different.
After Washington’s Game 6 victory on Sunday sent the Philadelphia Flyers into their offseason, the Caps’ captain Alex Ovechkin had this to say to NBC’s Pierre McGuire about facing the Penguins:
It’s a great team, obviously. It’s going to be great for the league and the fans, too.
Braden Holtby, the Capitals’ goalie added:
They’re really hot. They’re really skilled offensively. But I think our mindset is, as long as we play our game, it doesn’t matter.
The Penguins came into the playoffs winners of 14 of their final 16 regular season games, and many said that upon entering the postseason, Pittsburgh was not only the hottest team, they were the best team.
The Caps were the regular season’s best team, winning the Presidents’ Trophy. They wrapped up home-ice advantage on March 28th, but seemed to be fading ever so slightly even prior to that game in Columbus. They had secured the Metropolitan Division title and the Eastern Conference’s top seed a week prior. They can’t be blamed for perhaps taking their foot off the gas a little. There wasn’t much, if anything, left for them to play for.
The NHL is salivating over this matchup. It’s hard to argue that the league didn’t want to see this; arguably its two best teams duking it out for, the league hopes, seven games.
They’ve faced each other eight times in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, but only (now) twice since 2001. Each team’s fan base surely remembers vividly those clashes of the 1990’s.
The Playoff History
In what would become a trend, the Penguins lost the first game of the series. Ironically, the Penguins are 1-7 in Game 1 versus the Caps in the playoffs, yet are 7-1 in terms of series victories.
Kevin Stevens scored an overtime goal in Game 2 (final score was 7-6), and the Penguins never looked back, holding Washington to just one goal in each of the final three games.
- 1992 Penguins win 4-3
In typical Penguins form they lost Game 1, then Game 2 in which Mario Lemieux played sparingly due to a bum shoulder. They actually went down three games to one in the series before Lemieux put the team on his back to the tune of 7G-10A-17P in the final five games of the series. Let those numbers sink in.
- 1994 Capitals win 4-2
With no Lemieux in their lineup (he could barely tie his own skates, let alone actually use them), and despite having home-ice advantage, the Penguins couldn’t win in D.C. The Caps won all three of their home games en route to their only series victory over Pittsburgh in their history.
- 1995 Penguins win 4-3
Pittsburgh once again trailed in the series 3-1 before roaring back thanks to a Luc Robitaille’s overtime goal in Game 5, and a Kenny Wregget shutout in Game 7.
- 1996 Penguins win 4-2
Yet another Quarterfinal matchup between these two, and yes the Penguins lost Games 1 and 2 at home. But thanks to a very famous Petr Nedved goal at 19:15 of the fourth overtime period (2:17 a.m.), the Penguins tied the series and won the next two games.
- 2000 Penguins win 4-1
This is the one series in which Pittsburgh won Game 1. They won the first three games in fact, thanks to Jaromir Jagr doing his best Lemieux impression (Lemieux had “retired”).
- 2001 Penguins win 4-2
Lemieux made his triumphant return to hockey in December of the regular season. Every game in this series, save for Game 3 (a 3-0 Pens victory), was decided by one goal.
- 2009 Penguins win 4-3
Washington won the first two games at home. Game 2 saw both Crosby and Ovechkin record hat tricks. The Pens took the next three, thanks to overtime goals by Kris Letang in Game 3, and Evgeni Malkin in Game 5 back in D.C.
Thanks to a Marc-Andre Fleury save on an Ovechkin breakaway early in Game 7, the Penguins routed the Caps 6-2 to advance to their second straight Eastern Conference Final.
Deja Vu, All Over Again
This will be the third time of the nine meetings that will take place in the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs (1991, 2009), and that’s not the only similarity between now and ’09.
Back in December, current Pens’ GM Jim Rutherford fired coach Mike Johnston. In came Mike Sullivan from Wilkes Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh soared. Dan Bylsma was brought up from WB/S to replace Michel Therrien in February of 2009, and after a similarly rough start to his tenure, the Penguins went on a tear to end the season. We all know how that ended.
Sidney Crosby was 21 in 2009 during that series, Evgeni Malkin 22, Fleury 24, and Kris Letang had turned 22 just one week prior. Those who would come to be known as the core of the Penguins were young. Frighteningly young. Now, that core is the veteran presence of this Penguins team. The young players now are Tom Kuhnhackl (24), Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary (23), Matt Murray (21), and they’re all contributing.
Finally, just like in 2009, Washington will have home-ice advantage.
Putting the Past to Bed
As with the Rangers, the Penguins will need to put what happened in the regular season against the Capitals behind them.
Against the Blue Shirts, Pittsburgh went 3-1-0. Against the Caps, 3-2-0.
The Pens have every right to be a confident group heading into D.C. this week. They performed well versus the Capitals this season, especially in the final meeting in Pittsburgh, winning 6-2.
But none of that will mean anything to either team once the puck drops later in the week for Game 1 (a schedule has, as of this writing, not been made for this series).
Its a new season, a different time, and both teams will be looking to forget the past.
Pretty hard to do though, when it is once again repeating itself.