It was fitting, in a lot of ways, that Tom Wilson’s third-period shot found the back of the net to extend the Capitals and Penguins’ game for a few more minutes Thursday. It was as if the world needed a few more minutes to watch.
His late regulation goal clinched another playoff berth for the Capitals, and an overtime win propelled the Penguins to the top of the East Division with a playoff spot in their back pocket, too. Now, the two best teams in the division will play Saturday with first place on the line once again.
Wilson wasn’t around for the early days of the Capitals-Penguins rivalry, but he’s become a lightning rod over the years with massive hits, suspensions and a few key goals of his own. He wasn’t alive when the rivalry caught fire in the early 1990s, as the Penguins barreled through the Capitals year after year. But like so many over the past two decades, he’s become a focal point of a rivalry that’s become one of the best in professional sports.
Through the past 16 years, the Capitals and the Penguins have been the best regualar-season teams in the NHL, and even as other competitors rise and fall they both remain at the league’s summit, year after year. It’s been a remarkable run of consistency and one that hasn’t been matched by any teams in the salary cap era, much less by two bitter rivals.
“You can just feel that it’s always electric,” said Capitals forward Carl Hagelin, who played for the Penguins from 2015-2018. “Those games are always a lot of fun, usually high-scoring, there’s always kind of weird stuff happening throughout the game, a lot of momentum swings. And that’s what’s fun, that’s why you love playing the games. Even during the regular season, there’s that feeling to it that can’t really be matched with other teams.”
Ovi & Sid
Everyone in the NHL knew young Russian superstar, Alexander Ovechkin, was coming. What some were willing to do to acquire him, though, was jaw-dropping.
With the teenager headed toward star status in the NHL at breakneck speed, teams positioned themselves as best they could to win the 2004 NHL Draft lottery. The Florida Panthers took a different route.
In the famous 2003 draft, the Florida Panthers tried to convince the NHL that by taking leap years into account, Ovechkin, whose birthday is Sept. 17, was in fact eligible for that year’s draft (he missed the cut-off by two days). The Panthers selected him with a ninth round pick but were overruled by the league.
The Capitals’ rebuild hit the high-water mark when they won the prize a year later and were awarded the first overall pick to take Ovechkin, the high-flying rock star with an uncontainable energy.
A unique wrinkle of that story is, if the lottery balls had fallen in order of their actual odds that year, Ovechkin would have been a Pittsburgh Penguin, leading a franchise that desperately needed a jump.
“For a while, even before they started rebuilding, toward the tail-end of the (Jaromir) Jagr years, they were in some pretty deep financial trouble,” said NBC's national NHL writer Adam Gretz. “They were barely skating by. There was talk of the team being relocated, even in the late 90s there was talk of the team even being dissolved and having a dispersal draft. It was that bad.”
The Penguins were in a heap of financial trouble in the late 1990s as rumors grew about the future of the franchise, before franchise legend Mario Lemieux stepped in to give the team much-needed stability. It didn’t hurt that their pick the year before was goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, or that their consolation prize for second overall in 2004 was Evgeni Malkin.
And in a way, losing the Ovechkin draft lottery aided the Penguins, because the next year’s lottery rules netted them a soft-spoken centerman from Nova Scotia named Sidney Crosby. A rivalry was instantly born.
“The Magic vs. Bird parallels weren't off,” ESPN senior writer Greg Wyshynski said in an email to NBC Sports Washington. “These were generational talents, battling in the same era on rival teams. But the beauty of it was that they were traditional rival teams, and eventually divisional rival teams. So you had those extra layers of bad blood boiling under the Sid vs. Ovi thing, which was already the easiest sell imaginable: Canada vs. Russia, Golden Boy vs. Rock Star, etc.”
The only catch was that they’d have to wait a year to showcase their talents.
The league lost the entirety of the 2004-2005 season to a lockout, which led to various rule changes across the sport. One notable inclusion was the pressure to increase penalties. That played right into Ovechkin and Crosby’s hands.
In their first years as professionals, Ovechkin scored 52 goals and racked up 106 points in 81 games. Crosby wasn’t far behind, with 39 goals and 102 points. Neither the Capitals nor the Penguins were even remotely in contention, but it was clear the league had a future in Ovechkin and Crosby. The individual hardware has proven that.
“I don’t even have words for how good these two were right away,” Gretz said. “Crosby and Ovechkin in their rookie seasons kind of ruined it for every No. 1 pick that followed because these guys had 100 points in their rookie years.”
Through 1,195 career games, Ovechkin has 730 goals and is one away from joining the top five on the all-time goal scorers list. He’s a 12-time all-star, a three-time Hart Trophy (league MVP) recipient and has won the Rocket Richard Trophy for the league’s leader in goals a record nine times.
Crosby, in 1,033 games, has accumulated 1,319 points, which places him 35th all-time, ironically one spot and one point behind Ovechkin. Crosby is an eight-time All-Star, a two-time Hart recipient, a two-time Art Ross winner and has won the Conn Smythe Trophy twice.
“What I like best about this rivalry are two things,” Wyshynski said. “The absolute contrast in everything about them, from where they're from to how they play to how they carry themselves; and that, in their elder-statesmen years, they seem to get along pretty well, like when they hang at the All-Star Game. There's something really special about two players whose experiences have been so singular to have that kind of camaraderie.”
The first date everyone brings up is May 4, 2009. That night, Ovechkin and Crosby led the way to one of the best Stanley Cup playoff games in league history.
Both scored hat tricks, with Ovechkin’s third-period goal making the difference in a 4-3 Capitals victory. Today, it’s known in Washington and Pittsburgh as “The Double Hat Trick Game.” Even Hagelin, a young forward at the University of Michigan who didn’t know much about either team at the time, remembered when Ovechkin and Crosby had dueling hat tricks.
The Capitals lost that series, and then lost bitter, crushing back-to-back series in 2016 and 2017 despite winning the Presidents' Trophy. The margin for error has been razor thin, but with big roster changes after the 2017 season it seemed like Washington might have missed its best chances.
“Over those three years, even going back five years maybe, those two teams were potential Stanley Cup champs every year,” Hagelin said. “I think if Pittsburgh didn’t win those two years, the Caps would’ve had a great chance to do it. Whoever won that series had a lot of confidence moving forward because you knew you beat a great team that maybe deserved to win it all.”
Through 26 playoff games in the recent era, the Penguins hold a plus-three goal differential over the Capitals. Eight games have gone to overtime and 16 have been decided by one goal. In the team’s 66 regular season games since the lockout, the Capitals hold a plus-three goal differential of their own.
But paired with the Penguins’ victories over the Capitals in 2009, 2016 and 2017 came Stanley Cup championships. Each time they lost and watched their rivals hoist the Cup a month later, the Capitals knew they were closer to a championship than their second round exits otherwise indicated.
In 2018, they vanquished their demons in Pittsburgh with an overtime goal by Evgeny Kuznetsov in Game 6 of the second round to reach the Eastern Conference final for the first time in the Ovechkin era. Twelve games later, using the momentum from the Penguins’ series to beat Tampa Bay and then Vegas, they were Stanley Cup champions.
“I don't think there's another rivalry that touches it (over the past 20 years),” Wyshynski said. “Because even if there's still an imbalance between their respective successes, the Capitals do have that Cup. The Sharks never did against the Kings. The Canucks never did against Chicago. The Flyers never did against the Penguins, either. So on top of it being a great, must-see rivalry, it's not completely one-sided.”
The talent that has come through both organizations during those playoff series is, frankly, remarkable.
Fleury and Malkin are surefire Hall of Famers and Nicklas Backstrom is, too. Defensemen Kris Letang, Sergei Gonchar, Mike Green and John Carlson have all patrolled the blue line at one point or another in a playoff series.
“Just obscene talent on both sides — and the games were incredible,” Gretz said. “Just absolutely insane. It was the best hockey we’ve seen in the playoffs between two teams not only because of the way the games went, but because of the talent involved. Just absolute insanity.”
Over the years, as can be expected in a salary cap era, star players have left for other teams. Green never played in a second playoff series against the Penguins, nor did Bill Guerin. Fleury helped lead the Penguins to the Stanley Cup Final in 2017, only to face the Capitals there a year later with the Golden Knights. The glory can be fleeting in that regard.
But even with management and coaching changes over the years, the Capitals and Penguins have remained among the most talented teams in the league and found innovative ways to tweak their rosters each year via trade, free agency and player development to complement their stars and to compete for a Stanley Cup — usually against one another.
“If you look over the last 15 years, I don’t think the organizations have really panicked,” Hagelin said. “They’ve stayed the course and it’s easier to do that when you have leaders like (Ovechkin and Crosby). Both organizations do extremely well, and when you play for the teams and you’re in this matchup, Caps vs Pens, you can just feel that it’s a playoff atmosphere.”
The teams have made steadfast commitments to their top players, as Ovechkin and Backstrom have never donned a sweater without the Capitals logo on it. Crosby, Malkin and Letang have never been moved either.
The key fixtures in the entire operation, too, have stayed the same.
A historical anomaly
It’s not difficult to see why the Capitals and Penguins, from a talent perspective, have been as dominant as they’ve been for the past 15 years. The record books back that talent up.
Since the 2005-06 season, the Penguins rank first in wins (700) and in points (1,528). The Capitals rank third in wins (685) and second in points (1,516). The Penguins are first in goals scored (3,832) and the Capitals are second (3,775).
Which makes it all the more remarkable that the Blackhawks, winners of three Stanley Cups in that timeframe, have 634 wins in that span (11th). The Kings, who won two Cups, are 22nd with 590. Regular-season success doesn't always translate and Washington will probably always wonder about some series that got away from it.
The Capitals, who have won three Presidents Trophies in the past 12 seasons, have missed the playoffs just three times since the 2004-05 lockout. The Penguins have missed the playoffs just twice, and one time was only due to the league’s COVID-shortened season forcing a qualifying tournament last summer.
That means, in nearly every year the Stanley Cup playoffs have taken place since the lockout, the Capitals and Penguins have been there.
Due to the ages of the stars involved, it’s reasonable to assume that the Capitals and Penguins will fall off the mountaintop soon. Ovechkin, 35, doesn’t have a contract for next season yet. Crosby, 33, has a history of concussions. Malkin is 34 and Backstrom is 33, while Carlson is 31 and Letang is 34.
All of these stars involved have beaten back Father Time, but no one knows for how much longer that can last.
“I think these two teams are going to follow similar paths, where they ascended at the same time, they reached their peak at the same time, and just based on the ages of the players involved they’re probably going to decline at the same time,” Gretz said. “Or at least in similar time frames. When that happens, you are going to have that nostalgia to look back on how good those matchups were.”
Those matchups aren’t gone just yet, though. In fact, Capitals and Penguins fans could be in for another terrifying and stomach-churning series in just a few weeks. Whether that could be the last one remains to be seen. But if it happens, it will be another reminder of just how special Capitals vs. Penguins has been since the lockout.
It’s the rivalry the fans wanted, the league needed and both teams loved. There hasn’t been one comparable, and the odds one arises down the road are slim. And, again, it’s not over. Not yet.
“If we see each other in the playoffs, it’ll probably feel the same way again,” Capitals coach Peter Laviolette said. “It’ll have that mark that it’s a big game. Because it’s Pittsburgh and it’s Washington.”