When the Capitals last met the Penguins eight months ago yesterday, they were 12-15-1 and in serious jeopardy of not making the playoffs during the lockout-shortened season. Washington fell 2-1 that night in Pittsburgh but played first-year coach Adam Oates’ system so well that center Nicklas Backstrom recalled, “That’s where our season turned.”
Indeed, the Caps went 15-2-2 the rest of the way to clinch a fifth Southeast Division title in six years. Now, the Southeast is history and when the Caps and Penguins tangle for the first time this season tonight at Verizon Center, first place in the new Metropolitan Division will be at stake.
“They’re one of the teams in the league that are a measuring stick,” Oates said. “They’re a really, really good hockey team that you got to see how you stand up against ‘em and they’re also one of our rivals.”
Pittsburgh (13-8, 26 points) and Washington (12-8-1, 25) established serious enmity while battling in seven postseason series from 1991-2001 with the Penguins winning all but one.
“That rivalry’s been around a lot longer than any of us have been here,” said Washington’s ninth-year forward Brooks Laich. “I remember when I first got here, the older guys like Olaf Kolzig and Jeff Halpern had played in the rivalry for years and were very passionate about it. That rubs off on you as a young guy and it’s obviously continued since then.”
However, Laich is one of just seven current Caps – Backstrom, Jay Beagle, John Erskine, Eric Fehr, Mike Green and Alex Ovechkin are the others – left from 2009, the only spring that Washington and Pittsburgh squared off during the past 12 years. And while the Caps have won just three playoff series since their run to their only Stanley Cup finals in 1998, the Penguins have won 14, including the 2009 Cup.
However, with the ongoing competition between three-time Hart Trophy (MVP) winner Ovechkin and Pittsburgh superstar Sidney Crosby for the mantle of world’s best hockey player and the fact that the Caps and Penguins are division foes again for the first time since 1993, expect the rivalry to be fully re-kindled, starting tonight.
“It’s going to be a big match,” Ovechkin said. ‘I think everybody’s going to be excited, players, fans, the media. It’s going to be fun night. It’s always fun to play against great players. For us, it’s a big challenge. They like to play offense. We like to play offense.”
Oddly, the Caps have 10 more goals than the usually high-octane Penguins while Pittsburgh has uncharacteristically allowed nine fewer behind goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who’s even hotter than Washington’s Braden Holtby. And of course, the visitors also have Crosby, who has captained the Penguins to a Cup and Canada to Olympic gold.
“You’ve got two of the best guys in the world playing against each other,” Oates said of Ovechkin and Crosby. “It just makes for a little bit more electric game.”
As does the presence of Crosby’s fellow former Hart winner, Evgeni Malkin.
“You want to slow those guys and that starts in the neutral zone,” said 23-year-old John Carlson, who’ll be one of Washington’s two defensemen with as many as 125 career games if Green remains out with a lower body injury. “Malkin likes to wind it up more than Crosby so you try to take away his speed. We’ll do our best to keep them to the outside, limit their chances and try to frustrate them.”
Oates said that mission one is staying out of the penalty box in order to limit Pittsburgh’s big guns from getting power play time. Laich said that Washington has to focus on the pace of the game.
“When we have the puck, we want to go north,” he explained. “When they have the puck, we want to stall ‘em, slow them down in the neutral zone. Their big forwards like to skate. Their defensemen like to join the rush. We’re getting better at [controlling the pace], but we still have a ways to go.”
But since a 1-4 start, the Caps are 11-4-1 — including victories over Columbus, Detroit and St. Louis in their last three games — so they’ve been doing plenty right.
“We’re feeling pretty good about ourselves,” said Carlson, who’ll be auditioning for Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma, the United States’ coach in February’s Olympics. “We’re coming off a big win against a real good team. We’re getting better at our reads and playing consistently. We’ve done a good job with a young D-corps.”
Right wing Joel Ward, whose nine goals are second on the Caps to Ovechkin’s NHL-high 17, said they were trying to be too creative
early but have returned to Oates’ system while establishing the league’s top special teams.
“We want to keep it simple, dump pucks in and not turn it over too much,” added left wing Jason Chimera, one of seven Caps with at least 11 points, a total reached by only five Penguins. “When we don’t turn the puck over, we’re a dangerous team. That’s the biggest lesson.”
After teaching Pittsburgh plenty of lessons in winning nine of the 10 matchups the previous three years, Washington lost all three games last season which makes tonight’s contest even more important for the Caps even though each team will have 70 more remaining including three against each other.
“We want to show them that we’re a good team,” Backstrom said. “It will be our benefit to beat them if we play them in the playoffs.”
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011.