NHL Rivalry Breakdown: Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL rivalry
WASHINGTON, DC - NOVEMBER 10: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates past Alex Ovechkin #8 of the Washington Capitals during the second period at Capital One Arena on November 10, 2017 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Even as hockey leagues all over the world take a hiatus, the Last Word on Hockey team is still devoted to publishing quality content in the absence of live sports. Such continues the NHL Rivalry Breakdown.

Each article will take a look at two longtime rivals and break down how the rivalry came to be, how the teams stack up against each other currently, and how the matchup may look down the road. This next edition takes a look at the rivalry between the giants of the Metropolitan Division, the Washington Capitals, and the Pittsburgh Penguins.

NHL Rivalry: Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins

The Past

While this rivalry may be known for the battles they’ve fought in recent years, it dates all the way back to the 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Meeting for the first time in the postseason, both the Penguins and Capitals made their way to the division finals. Led by superstar Mario Lemieux, the Penguins beat out the Capitals in five games to go on to win their first Stanley Cup as a franchise.

During the 1992 playoffs, the teams met again. In the opening round of the playoffs, the Penguins managed to edge out a seven-game series win after the Capitals had gone up three games to one. The Penguins would then go on to win their second Stanley Cup, back to back.

Throughout the next decade of divisional changes across the league, the Penguins and the Capitals would meet five more times in the postseason, with the Capitals advancing only once in 1994.

The 2000s brought playoff droughts for both teams. This rivalry wouldn’t fire back up until the 2004 and 2005 NHL Draft brought two of the best players in NHL history to the forefront of the league.

Ovechkin vs. Crosby

Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, two future Hall of Famers with an insane amount of records and awards between them, took the 2004-2005 season by storm and their respective teams to new heights.

Ovechkin, eighth on the NHL’s all-time goal-scoring list, and Crosby, one of the best playmakers the league has ever seen, reignited the rivalry. With 100-plus point seasons as rookies, they fought it out for the Calder trophy with the Capitals forward coming out on top.

Though pitted against each other since then, the Capitals and the Penguins didn’t meet in the postseason again until the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs. Going shot for shot in Game 2 of the conference semifinals, Ovechkin and Crosby both recorded hat tricks and the Capitals came out with a 2-0 series lead. Crosby ended up leading the Penguins to a roaring comeback and a series win and, eventually, the franchise’s third Stanley Cup.

The next time these two teams met in the postseason, the Penguins knocked the Capitals out of the second round in six games. They would go on to win the franchise’s fourth Stanley Cup and Crosby’s second. The Penguins won their fifth Stanley Cup in 2017 by first going through the Capitals in the second round once again.

2018 Eastern Conference Semifinal

For the third consecutive year, the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins met in the second round of the playoffs. The 1991 Stanley Cup Playoffs marked the first time in this NHL rivalry that the Penguins beat the Capitals in the postseason and went on to win the ultimate trophy. It was a trend that would continue for many years, but the Capitals flipped the script in 2018.

Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals defeated their storied rival in six games. As said by play-by-play announcer John Walton, “the demons [had] been exorcised!” An overtime goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov, assisted by Ovechkin, led to the Capitals’ first Stanley Cup in franchise history.

Any meeting in the postseason by these two teams, whether the Penguins beat the Capitals or vice versa, always seems to end up with the Stanley Cup in one of their hands.

The Present

Washington: The Great 8 Remains Great

Ovechkin’s distinguished career isn’t coming to an end quite yet. He is still a 50-goal scorer and as captain of the Capitals, his elite offensive power and development of two-way play will make sure the club stays on top for a couple more years.

Whether he can lead his team to another Stanley Cup remains to be seen, but with offensive playmakers like Kusnetsov, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie, they can’t go wrong. Add blueliners like John Carlson and Dmitry Orlov into the mix, and the Capitals might defeat the Penguins in the postseason once again.

When healthy, Washington’s roster looks something like this:

Alex OvechkinEvgeny KuznetsovTom Wilson
Jakub VranaNicklas BackstromT.J. Oshie
Carl HagelinLars EllerIlya Kovalchuk
Richard PanikNic DowdGarnet Hathaway

Michal KempnyJohn Carlson
Brenden DillonDmitry Orlov
Jonas SiegenthalerNick Jensen

Braden Holtby
Ilya Samsonov

With offensive contributions from every line, the Capital’s depth chart isn’t a problem. A sometimes-shaky defence can cause issues, but for the most part, the Capitals don’t have much to worry about. There is a reason they sit on top of the Metropolitan Division.

Pittsburgh: Postseason High-Gear

While the Penguins usually maintain a spot among the top three in their division, there are times when their production falls short, leading to a drop in the ranks. No matter where they end the regular season, their postseason play is a whole other thing.

Crosby and his partner-in-crime Evgeni Malkin always kick it into high gear. Playoff production for players like Jake Guentzel is unstoppable. In 2017, he scored 21 points in just 12 games. Starting goaltender Matt Murray’s brick wall netminding never seems to falter in high-pressure situations, like a Game 7 against the Capitals.

The playoffs are a different beast for the Penguins, and they know how to slay it.

Their projected lineup when fully healthy reads as such:

Conor ShearySidney CrosbyJason Zucker
Jake GuentzelEvgeni MalkinBryan Rust
Dominik SimonJared McCannPatric Hornqvist
Zach Aston-ReeseTeddy BluegerBrandon Tanev

Brian DumoulinKris Letang
Marcus PetterssonJohn Marino
Jack JohnsonJustin Schultz

Matt Murray
Tristan Jarry

The elite offensive power that comes along with the first and second lines of the Penguins offence is unmatchable. Unfortunately, their third and fourth lines don’t produce enough compared to their rivals whose offensive power spans every line. Another Pittsburgh Washington match-up in this postseason means the Penguins must get past the play-ins. In facing the Montreal Canadiens, the Penguins will have to find that next level as they have in the past.

The Future

For both franchises, the future of this NHL rivalry means the impending retirement of both Ovechkin and Crosby. Losing their top players could mean hard times for both clubs. But, there are some bright sides to the futures of the Capitals and Penguins, as well.

For Washington, goaltending shouldn’t be a problem. Current starting goaltender and Vezina winner, Holtby, is supported by Ilya Samsonov, a projected franchise goalie. In terms of offence, losing Ovechkin will hurt. But young guys like Jakub Vrana and prospects, like Connor McMichael, who just put up 47 goals and 55 assists in just 57 games played in the OHL, are the Capitals’ future.

The Capitals have a solid core that should stay intact even when Ovechkin says goodbye. But before that happens, they have a real chance of winning another Cup.

As for Pittsburgh, Crosby’s retirement will leave a huge hole in their lineup. Prospects like Samuel Poulin and Nathan Legare will have to do their best to fill it. The Penguins should be set on defence for the next couple of years with Kris Letang holding down their top pair and prospects like Calen Addison developing in their AHL affiliate. They also have the opportunity to win another Stanley Cup before Crosby goes.

Main Photo:
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