Why are the Capitals and Penguins Rivals?

Ovechkin and Crosby
Ovechkin and Crosby Photo: Sports Illustrated

Washington Capitals fans are no strangers to having a deep-seated disgust for the team from Pittsburgh, and vice versa. The rivalry between Washington and the Penguins seems to go back for ages, but where did it come from in the first place? Why are the Capitals rivals with the Penguins, specifically, and not another metropolitan team– say, the Philadelphia Flyers or New York Rangers? Let’s take a walk back through time an examine the heated rivalry and its origins.

Tough Competition

For a long period of time, both the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins were serious playoff contenders season after season, due in part to both of them having offensive superstars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. Both players began their NHL careers in 2005, so they have grown and developed their game alongside each other on the same timeline. These star talents, as well as a deep roster of other breakout stars, have created tough competition repeatedly, especially in the postseason. The Capitals and Penguins have met 11 times in playoffs, the second most between any two expansion teams. (The Dallas Stars and St. Louis Blues hold the record with 14 meetings.) The Penguins have dominated in the playoff series between the teams, winning all except the 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals and the 2018 Eastern Conference Second Round– which led to the Capitals finally winning the Stanley Cup. In fact, all six combined Stanley Cup Championships between the two teams have required defeating the other at some stage of the playoffs. The teams are geographically close, as well, with just about 250 miles between the two teams.

The Early History Behind the Rivalry

The Capitals and Penguins have been facing off since Washington’s inaugural season in 1974, and have played 314 times since then. However, the rivalry was nothing but friendly until the 1990-1991 season due to the teams not performing well at the same time. In the 1991 playoffs, however, the teams faced each other in the division finals, with Pittsburgh winning both the series and the Stanley Cup Championship. The teams continued thriving in postseason play, leading to them meeting in every single playoff slate from 1990-2001. As both teams began to falter in their success after the 200-2001 season, the rivalry cooled off. In fact, during those 6 years, only the Capitals made it to the playoffs– one time, where they lost against the Tampa Bay Lightning in the 2003 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals.

In 2001, a groundbreaking trade happened between the two teams. After much speculation, Pittsburgh traded their star Czech forward Jaromir Jagr and defenseman František Kučera to the Washington Capitals for three prospects–Kris Beech, Michal Sivek, and Ross Lupaschuk. In his 11 years with the Penguins, Jagr played 806 games, tallying 1,079 points. He was a phenomenal acquisition for Washington, however, Pittsburgh wasn’t so lucky– it appeared they had been fleeced by the Capitals. Beech, a supposed “franchise player”, played in just 100 games for the Penguins and notched 27 points (10g, 17a). Michal Sivek played 38 games and scored only six points. Ross Lupaschuk played a whopping three games in the NHL and scored no points. Though the trade ultimately ended up being for the best, Pittsburgh fans were understandably furious, only fueling the fire between fans of the two teams.

Draft Success

Due to the two teams underperforming in the regular season, they were able to draft extraordinary talent that would change the course of their successes for good. Alexander Semin (2002), Alexander Ovechkin (2004), and Nicklas Backstrom (2006) were all drafted during this time by the Capitals. Ryan Whitney (2002), Marc-Andre Fleury (2003), Evgeni Malkin (2004), Sidney Crosby (2005), Kris Letang (2005), and Jordan Staal (2006) were all drafted by the Penguins. These players quickly turned their respective teams around, with both Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby contributing in huge ways in particular. Ovechkin tallied 106 points in his rookie season, and “Sid the Kid” notched 103. Both teams missed playoffs that year, but that would not last long.

The Ovechkin/Crosby Heyday

Both the Capitals and the Penguins reached playoffs in 2008 but did not face each other until 2009, when the rivalry was reignited and reached new heights. Both teams were hot, entering the playoffs as the second-best (Capitals) and fourth-best (Penguins) teams in the Eastern Conference. Additionally, all three leading scorers in the league (Evgeni Malkin, Alex Ovechkin, and Sidney Crosby) belonged to the two teams. One of the most notable games in rivalry history occurred during this playoff series, when both Ovechkin and Crosby scored hattricks in game 2. The Penguins ultimately ended up winning the Stanley Cup for the third time, while Washington fell short once again.

The teams also met in the 2011 Winter Classic– a pivotal moment for Sidney Crosby, as he was concussed by Capitals’ center Dave Steckel. He returned to play four games later, but after a hit by Tampa Bay’s Victor Hedman, did not return for 10 months. The two teams remained competitive in regular season play, but did not meet again in the playoffs until 2016. Before the 2013-2014 season, the NHL realigned teams into its current setup– two conferences and four divisions. They also rearranged game schedules to make divisional matchups more common. Both the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins were placed into the Metropolitan division, adding fuel to the fire of the heated rivalry.

At the end of the 2015-2016 season, the two teams finished at the top of the Eastern conference and, yet again, met in the playoffs with Washington falling short and Pittsburgh going on to win their fourth Stanley Cup. The 2017 playoffs were much the same, with the Penguins taking the Stanley Cup home in back-to-back years.

“The Demons Have Been Exorcised”

The Penguins-Capitals playoff series of 2018 may be the most famous (infamous?) meeting between the two teams. Entering game six of the series, the Capitals were up 3-2 against the Penguins and had the chance to finally defeat them in playoffs for the first time since 1994. Things were looking good until the Penguins’ Kris Letang tied the game, sending the teams to overtime. During overtime, the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov was the hero– forcing a turnover and passing to Ovechkin, who noticed Kuznetsov streaking toward the net and passed it back to him to assist on the goal. The Capitals were victorious and ecstatic, and one of the most legendary calls in sports history was made by John Walton.

“Kuznetsov gets loose. Evgeny coming down the middle. A shot… and it comes over! He scores! He scores! Evgeny Kuznetsov wins it for Washington! It’s off to the third round! The demons have been exorcised! Good morning! Good afternoon! And goodnight Pittsburgh!”

Washington went on to win the Stanley Cup that year, adding their names to the greatest trophy in sports.

The Rivalry Continues

As both Ovechkin and Crosby still captain their respective teams, the interdivisional rivalry continues, with the teams facing each other three or four times each season. It is highly unlikely that the Capitals and Penguins will take each other on in postseason play this year. Washington is fighting tooth and nail with Detroit and the New York Islanders for the second Wild Card spot in the Eastern Conference, while Pittsburgh sits in 7th place for that spot. However, tensions still run high between both players and fans of the franchises, and with both teams looking to rebuild shortly, perhaps another Crosby/Ovechkin-level duo will arise and keep the flame of the rivalry ignited for years to come.

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