Tonight, the Capitals will welcome their arch-nemesis to Verizon Center for the first time this season. While the Capitals and Penguins already met once this year, with the Pens raising their Stanley Cup banner and beating the Caps in the shootout 3-2 on opening night, this will be the first time many Caps fans see the defending champs in person.
This storied rivalry is more than just Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby. Here is a history lesson of how these teams have come to hate each other over the last couple decades. I must warn you however that it is a sour history if you’re a Capitals fan.
The Penguins were founded in 1967 with the Capitals being founded in 1974. Both expansion franchises struggled in the early going. In that 1967 campaign, Pittsburgh finished 27-34-13 with the third worst record in the league. Washington only won eight games in their first season and had the worst record in the league. This rivalry wasn’t born until these clubs met in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Despite the Caps leading in eight of the nine series, Washington had only won one series against the Pens. In each of the Penguins four Stanley Cup titles, they had to go through Washington to get there including the last two times they met in the postseason (2009 and 2016).
They first met in the 1991 Patrick Division Finals, where the Capitals took Game 1 4-2 before dropping the next four games. The five game series win by the Penguins would eventually lead to their first Stanley Cup where they beat the Minnesota North Stars in six games.
The next year, the Capitals finished in second place in the Patrick Division, 11-points ahead of Pittsburgh in the regular season (98 points to 87). These teams met in the first round and the Capitals led in the series three games to one before Pittsburgh came all the way back to win the series, thanks in large part to Mario Lemieux. The Penguins won their second straight Stanley Cup with a four game sweep of the Blackhawks.
In 1994, it was finally the Capitals turn for an upset. Facing the Penguins as a #2 seed in the first round, the 7th seeded Capitals beat the Penguins in six games. It was their first and only time they beat the Penguins in the playoffs.
The following year, the Penguins got their revenge despite missing their superstar Lemieux with a bad back coming off his cancer diagnosis in 1993 that was called Hodgkin’s Disease. The Capitals once again held a 3-1 series lead but the Penguins beat the Caps in overtime of Game 5 and outscored the Caps 10-1 in Games 6 and 7 to complete the comeback.
In 1996 with the Capitals holding a 2-1 series lead, Game 4 saw a long contest at the old Capital Centre that needed four overtimes to decide the winner. Petr Nedved’s goal through three Capitals defenders ended the long night and set another dagger into the heart of Capitals fans. Unable to recover from that marathon game, Pittsburgh would go on to win the series in six games. In fact, the Capitals won the first two games of that series in Pittsburgh, before dropping the next four.
When the new century began, the results were eerily similar. In 2000, the #7 Penguins “upset” the #2 Capitals in five games during the first round. In 2001, the Capitals were once again seeded higher as the #3 seed while the Penguins were sixth seeded. The Penguins would send the Caps home packing after Martin Straka’s overtime goal in Game 6.
That would be the last time the Penguins would make the playoffs, while the Capitals lost in the quarterfinals to the Lightning two seasons later. Both teams would finish near the bottom of the league the following season, which prompted them to select top draft picks the following two years, 2004 and 2005, and put two young superstars on the board in both years to save both franchises.
In 2004, the Caps took Alex Ovechkin for the first overall pick in the NHL Draft. The following year, the Penguins had the first pick and they selected Sidney Crosby. This brought the rivalry to new heights.
Before they faced off on the NHL stage, they squared off on the international stage.
Both beginning their NHL careers in the autumn of 2005, Ovechkin won the Calder Trophy for Rookie of the Year with 52 goals, 54 assists and 106 points. Crosby would be the first of the two to make the playoffs but both would score in the first playoff games.
In 2009 the rivalry intensified. It was all Penguins in the beginning of the Crosby-Ovechkin matchups but the Caps beat them in both their building and in Verizon Center in February 2009.
These teams met in the playoffs that year and despite being determined to change the course of history, the results were the same. The Caps went out to a 2-0 lead before falling in seven games. But Game 2 in particular was a game for the ages in the young superstars’ careers.
For both Crosby and Ovechkin, this was the first time in their careers that they had a hat trick in a playoff game. After that Game 2 win, the Capitals dropped the next three games. With their backs to the wall in Game 6, an overtime goal by David Steckel would send the series back to DC for Game 7.
The Caps would fall 6-2 and Crosby would go on to hoist his first Stanley Cup as the Penguins beat the Red Wings in seven games.
In 2011, both teams would take their rivalry outdoors on New Years Day as part of the NHL Winter Classic. Pittsburgh would host the game at Heinz Field, turning a football stadium into a hockey rink. Eric Fehr had two goals and the Caps won 3-1 in front of a crowd of 68,111. A good number of Caps fans made the trip.
These teams would meet in playoffs last season in the second round. The Caps took the first game as T.J. Oshie got a hat trick and the game-winning goal in overtime.
The Penguins took the next three games which put the Capitals in a 3-1 hole. The Caps won Game 5 on home ice in a game that saw Ovi light the lamp.
In Game 6 in Pittsburgh the Capitals trailed 3-0 before mounting a comeback in the late second period and during the third with goals by Oshie, Justin Williams and John Carlson before their season ultimately came to an end in overtime with a goal by Nick Bonino.
This series loss in particular was disappointing. Many Capitals fans thought that would finally be the year they got over the hump but they ran into a hot Pittsburgh team that played their best hockey in the late regular season. The Penguins would go on to win another Stanley Cup, this time beating the Sharks in six games.
The Penguins opened their season this year raising their Stanley Cup banner in front of the Caps before beating them 3-2 in a shootout.Tonight these teams will take the ice in DC and there will be plenty of bad blood.
By Michael Marzzacco