Hockey rivalries have been around since the NHL was founded 1917. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had rivals since they joined the league in 1967 with the six-team expansion. Among the trash talk, bitter battles and playoff competition, the following teams can be considered the Penguins’ fiercest rivals of the Sidney Crosby era.
Step aside Philly, there’s a new antagonist in town. The Capitals vs. Penguins rivalry has been one of the most publicized since Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin’s rookie seasons in 2005-06. While the Crosby vs. Ovechkin battle escalated the rivalry, league realignment, playoff matchups, and questionable hits by players on both teams have fueled the fire.
Battles between the two have been more intense since the 2013-14 NHL realignment, which put both clubs in the Metropolitan Division. Not only do the teams go head-to-head four times a year and battle mercilessly for one of the top three spots in the division, but the animosity from the regular season is carried over into the playoffs, where a meeting between the clubs has been inevitable the past few years.
The Penguins and Capitals met in the playoffs for the first time in the No. 8 and No. 87 era in 2009 in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Both players nabbed their first playoff hat tricks in Game 2 of the seven-game series, but Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury stole the show in the last game, with a magnificent stop on an Ovechkin breakaway; a stop most goalies wouldn’t have made. Since then, the teams have met three times in the second round, with the Penguins winning two Stanley Cup championships, and Capitals winning one.
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If you thought the competition would simmer down now that Ovechkin’s Capitals have finally raised the Stanley Cup banner, think again. With high, sometimes dangerous, hitters like Tom Wilson on the Capitals’ roster, and questionable hits and collisions like the one between Evgeni Malkin and T.J. Oshie cropping up, bad blood will be boiling between the two clubs for many years to come.
Though the Caps take the top spot on Pittsburgh’s most-wanted list, the Philadelphia Flyers are not far behind. Both teams entered the league in the 1967 expansion, setting the stage for what would become a cross-state rivalry. The Flyers were known as the NHL’s bad guys with the Broad Street Bullies in the mid-1970s.
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The Penguins vs. Flyers rivalry is well known, though it lost steam leading up to the 2004-05 lockout. However, after the lockout, with rookies like Crosby, Malkin, Mike Richards and Claude Giroux entering the league, both teams were serious Cup contenders and the rivalry came back to life.
Since 2005-06, the teams have met in the playoffs four times, each series with its share of fireworks. In Game 6 of the 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Penguins were down 3-0 when Max Talbot and Daniel Carcillo decided to drop the gloves. Talbot got pummeled but lit a spark under his bench. The Penguins fired off five unanswered goals and moved on to the next round.
It’s not just the players who have a vested interest in this rivalry; the coaches do, too. That was evident on Apr. 1, 2012, when Flyers head coach Peter Laviolette and Penguins assistant coach Tony Granato hopped up onto the boards and engaged in a screaming match while NBC announcer Pierre McGuire watched from between the benches. The teams met again a few weeks later for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, where the Flyers beat the Penguins in six games.
The Penguins vs. Flyers rivalry will be around for years. In 2011, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman considered a realignment plan that would put the teams in different divisions and cut their regular-season meetings down to two games. Flyers then-president Peter Luukko told the Times Herald:
“This is a big rivalry that means a lot not only to us as a franchise, but to our fans, [Penguin] fans, and the entire state of Pennsylvania,” (from ‘Flyers, Penguins join forces to fight proposal of realigning the divisions’, The Times Herald, 10/31/11).
Columbus Blue Jackets
With just three hours driving distance separating PPG Paints Arena and Nationwide Arena it was only a matter of time before the Penguins and Columbus Blue Jackets developed a rivalry. The Blue Jackets entered the league in 2000 and spent their first 13 seasons in the Western Conference. Reaching the playoffs just once during that time (2008-09), the clubs didn’t have many opportunities to develop a feud. That changed in 2013-14 with the realignment.
That changed in 2013-14 with the realignment, and the Blue Jackets moved to the Metropolitan Division in the Eastern Conference. The teams were scheduled to meet five times in the regular season and likely in the playoffs. The Penguins and Blue Jackets met in the first round of the 2013-14 playoffs. The series went six games with the Penguins moving on to the next round. The two teams met again in the first round of the 2016-17 playoffs, where the Penguins were victorious in five games.
The saying “familiarity breeds contempt” is true for the Penguins and Blue Jackets, and especially after former head coach John Tortorella joined Columbus. Tortorella often voiced his displeasure with the Penguins when he was the head coach of the New York Rangers, and his feelings haven’t changed since joining the Blue Jackets in 2015. In a 2017 video interview with the Columbus Dispatch, Tortorella said:
“Quite honestly, I don’t like the [Penguins]. I say that not in a personal way, but as a team that we want to beat. I guess maybe I’m defining it’s a little bit of a rivalry.”
More recently, Tortorella took offense to comments made by former Blue Jacket and former Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson and general manager Jim Rutherford. Though the teams met during the 2018-19 preseason, it’s expected that emotions will be high and tempers will flare in the clubs’ first regular-season meeting on Nov. 24.
New York Rangers
A Penguins vs. Rangers rivalry might not be the first to come to mind, but the seeds were planted long before the Crosby era, when Adam Graves slashed Mario Lemieux in the 1992 Patrick Division Final, breaking Lemieux’s hand.
The disdain between these two clubs in the modern era comes from grit as much as talented player matchups. From 2005-06 through 2016-17, Penguins vs. Rangers games were a goalie fan’s dream. Pittsburgh’s Fleury and the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist put on spectacular performances, making everyone stop and wonder, “Did he really just stop that?”
The two teams met four times in the playoffs during that span, with two series going to the Rangers (2014 and 2015) and two to the Penguins (2008 and 2016). The top-notch play of Fleury and Lundqvist was key in all four series but was overshadowed by on-ice antics, especially during the 2008 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
In Game 2 of the semifinals, Crosby and former Penguin Jaromir Jagr engaged in verbal sparring for most of the game. When asked what the chirping was about, Crosby told the Tribune-Review’s, Josh Yohe:
“Just ask [Jagr]. I wasn’t doing the talking,” (from ‘Staal tactics’, Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, 4/28/08).
Jagr didn’t give up much either, saying he told Crosby to “just play hockey,” which was interpreted as a dig against the Penguins’ captain, who the Rangers felt embellished altercations to draw penalties.
At that time, no Rangers game was complete without some sort of shenanigan from left winger Sean Avery, who had the league’s unsportsmanlike conduct rule amended just for him, and prompted the Penguins’ Gary Roberts to call him, “an idiot”. On the night of Apr. 27, Avery slashed Fleury from behind, causing Fleury to whack Avery between the legs with his goal stick.
Related: The New York Rangers’ Best Rivalries
Since Avery’s retirement in 2012, some of the dirty showmanship has calmed down allowing the rivalry to be fueled by players trying to out-skate, out-score, and outsmart one another.
Detroit Red Wings
The Penguins vs. Red Wings hatred can be summed up in two ways: Stanley Cup Playoffs and Marian Hossa.
The 2008 Stanley Cup Final was monumental for many reasons: It was the first time two U.S. teams had met in the final in five years; the first time the Penguins had been back to the final since 1992; and the Red Wings were going for their fourth championship in 11 seasons. The Red Wings won in six games, making the Penguins hungry to try again.
However, in the offseason, free agent Marian Hossa chose to ditch the black and gold for red and white, signing a one-year deal with the Red Wings. When asked about his choice, Hossa said:
It was a really tough decision for me to make. When I compared the two teams, I felt like I would have a little better of a chance to win the Cup in Detroit.
The Penguins, however, had the last laugh. Both Pittsburgh and Detroit returned to the Cup Final in 2009, where Pittsburgh snagged their third franchise championship on two goals from Talbot in Game 7 and a diving save from Fleury as the clocked ticked down to zero.
Despite the satisfaction of making Hossa eat his words, the rivalry seemed to end with the handshakes and trophy presentation. The Red Wings moved to the Eastern Conference with the 2013-14 realignment, eliminating the chance of another Stanley Cup Final matchup between the clubs.
Additionally, many of the Red Wings players and coaches that made the rivalry so intense -like Hossa, head coach Mike Babcock, and center Henrik Zetterberg-have either moved on to other teams or have retired. Maybe an Eastern Conference Final matchup between the two clubs could reignite some of the 2008-09 animosity.
New York Islanders
The Islanders have been considered a Penguins rival since the mid-1970s thanks to the clubs’ frequent playoff meetings. This rivalry seemingly faded after the 2004-05 lockout but regained speed after a violent matchup between the two teams on Feb. 11, 2011.
Tempers were still high from a game nine days prior when the Penguins’ Talbot delivered a questionable check on the Islanders’ Blake Comeau, and goalies Brent Johnson and Rick DiPietro scrapped at center ice. The Penguins’ Johnson fractured DiPietro’s face with one punch, causing him to miss six weeks of action from the fracture and the knee swelling he sustained while falling to the ice.
The bloodbath game resulted in a $100,000 fine for the Islanders organization, two Islanders’ suspensions and one Penguin suspension, 65 penalties, and a total of 346 penalty minutes. The Penguins and Islanders haven’t had a violent matchup like this since, but it was shocking enough to earn them a place on the rivalry list for the two games that will live in infamy.