With stellar goaltending throughout by Tomas Vokoun and a heads-up play 15 minutes into the game by newcomer Joel Ward, prodigal son returned Jeff Halpern and sudden serious scorer Jason Chimera, the Caps slew the Penguins again last night.
The 1-0 victory at sold-out Verizon Center not only got Washington back on track after a pair of shoddy third periods at San Jose and Los Angeles, but it extended its incredible stranglehold over Pittsburgh, especially considering its sorry history against the guys in black and gold.
The Caps are now 12-1-2 over the last four seasons against the Penguins, the rivals who have dealt them so much postseason heartache. It had taken the previous nine seasons for Washington to win that many games against Pittsburgh. Incredibly, the Caps’ four straight season series triumphs over the Penguins tops their total during the previous 21 (!) years (3-14-4).
Washington coach Dale Hunter was a key member of the Caps for the first 12 of those years, four of which ended with playoff defeats against the Penguins (1991, 1992, 1995, 1996) and just one with a postseason series triumph over Pittsburgh (1994).
Oddly, the latter series came in the only year since 1990 that Washington changed coaches (Jim Schoenfeld for Terry Murray) during the season and made the playoffs. Food for thought, considering that Hunter replaced Bruce Boudreau on Nov. 28, huh?
That Pittsburgh playoff hex continued after Hunter was retired with April defeats in 2000, 2001 and 2009. Nine current Washington players were part of the latter collapse, one of five of seven playoff losses to the Penguins in which the Caps had the series lead (Halpern was on hand for the 2001 version).
Minus MVP Sidney Crosby, fellow standout center Jordan Staal and top defenseman Kris Letang for most of the season, Pittsburgh fell out of an Eastern Conference playoff spot last night as it passed the halfway point of its season at 21-17-4 with a sixth straight defeat.
Washington, without No. 1 center Nicklas Backstrom for a third consecutive game and, as has become usual, ace defenseman Mike Green, moved into the eighth and final postseason berth with a 22-17-2 record.
Those 46 points are the Caps’ fewest in four years at the mid-point, but the shutout of the Pens improved them to 10-8-1 under Hunter. Washington is also 7-3 at Verizon Center since the coaching change, 7-1 since Hunter lost his first two games as he began the switch from his predecessor’s offensive-oriented system to his defense-first mentality.
A ninth Caps-Penguins playoff series in 20 seasons this spring seems unlikely given Crosby’s uncertain future and Green’s consistent absence, as well as the tremendous first three months by the New York Rangers, the defending Stanley Cup Boston Bruins, the Philadelphia Flyers and the upstart Ottawa Senators and Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference.
However, the regular season dominance over Pittsburgh – which can continue or lessen slightly in the team’s final meeting a week from Sunday in the Steel City – has to give Washington tremendous confidence if the archrivals should happen to draw each other yet again come April.
David Elfin has covered sports since he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School in 1975. He is the Washington representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and is the author of the new book: “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan during the last two Redskins seasons, he has been the web site’s columnist since last March.