Here. We. Go… Again?
With the Washington Capitals’ powerhouse performance Monday night in Columbus and the Pittsburgh Penguins’ wild 8-5 win the night before in Philly (beer cans and all), the two teams will meet in the 2nd round of the NHL playoffs. Again. For the third straight year.
To quote Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”
The question becomes, will this latest installment end differently than the first two. First, let’s take a look back.
In 2016, it was a battle of the best team in the league versus the hottest team in the league. The Caps had won the President’s trophy and were everyone’s Stanley Cup favorite. The Pens were on an unholy tear entering the playoffs, and were the team no one wanted to face. The series went 6 games, with Pittsburgh not only coming out victorious, but also going on to win the Stanley Cup.
In 2017, the two teams met again in the second round. Washington had again won the President’s trophy, and Pittsburgh was obviously the defending Stanley Cup champs. Pittsburgh got off to a fast start, taking a 3-1 series lead. Washington, however, dug deep and won the next two games in dominant fashion, forcing a Game 7. It seemed momentum was on the Caps’ side, and they would avenge the failure of the year before. But Pittsburgh put together their most complete game of the season, including a 27 save shutout from Marc-Andre Fleury, to win 2-0, and send the Capitals to the golf course early once again. The Penguins would, once again, go on to win the Stanley Cup for the second time in as many years.
Throw in the Penguins seven-game second-round win over the caps in 2009 (also on the way to the Pens winning the cup), and you get a lopsided history between the two teams.
So what can we expect this year from Pittsburgh/Washington 3.0 (4.0)? Will the Pens embarrass the Capitals once again, or will Washington exorcise it’s black and gold demons?
Alex Ovechkin, the Capitals’ captain, and goal-scoring leader doesn’t seem scared of it being Groundhog Day.
“I can’t wait,” he said, per Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post. “It’s a huge opportunity for us to take a step forward.”
Interestingly, the fact that the Capitals face less pressure this year than they did in ’16 and ’17 might be the biggest and best difference for them. In both of the previous two series, the Capitals were picked by almost everyone to represent the Eastern Conference in the Cup Final. That added pressure might be part of the reason why, when the stakes against the Pens were highest, the Capitals stiffened and cracked under the pressure. This year, they were not predicted to be anywhere near as good, so they might feel they are playing with some house money.
At least to an extent.
Pittsburgh, by all accounts, owns Washington. More importantly, maybe, Sidney Crosby’s Penguins own Alex Ovechkin’s Capitols. Any way you slice it, it’s hard to deny that, at least in appearance, Crosby and his teammates are in the Capitals’ heads. And in the NHL playoffs, that mental advantage is usually worth much more than who is more talented.
Pittsburgh, it must be pointed out, is not taking anything for granted either.
“It’s always a challenge playing against these guys,” says goalie Matt Murray. “They’re a heck of a group.”
“They’ve been really tight matchups,” rugged winger Patric Hornqvist said about the past two series.
Sounds like a team saying all the right things.
That’s not to say Hornqvist and Murray are lying. The matches have been tight. They’ve made for some of the most exciting hockey in recent memory (see the Penguins’ series-clinching Game 6 triple delay of game OT win in ’16).
But in terms of the outcome, its been as one-sided as possible. You wouldn’t blame the Pens for getting cocky.
Like the rest of the series between these two, the games will be exciting, brutal, and close. And this may be the Capitals’ best chance to win. They’re not as stacked as the past two years, but they are also playing with less pressure. Playing with house money one could say. Add to that the fact that two of Pittsburgh’s most important players, Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin, are injured, and you could see how this year might be different for Washington. But they still have to not beat themselves. They have to execute. And they have not wilt under the bright lights when the stakes rise, as we all know they will as the series goes on.
And if the Penguins are able to “stick to their game” as their coach Mike Sullivan is fond of saying, and can gut out a series lead early on, we will have to start watching for signs of the same panicky crumbling from Washington. For all of their cool demeanor, they still have yet to prove they can beat the Penguins when it matters most. The past two years have shown us that.
You know what they say. Once is a Fluke. Twice is a Coincidence. But three times? That’s a Trend. It’s the Capitals last chance to prove bowing out to the Penguins is a coincidence, not a trend. Will they be successful, or will Pittsburgh prove once and for all that they own Ovi and his boys? Tune in starting at 7PM on April 26th to find out. I know what my prediction is…