The Capitals finally changed their playoff narrative last season with the franchise’s first Stanley Cup championship and they went through their biggest rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins, to win it. Washington’s run last season changed the nature of the Caps-Penguins rivalry, but if you think it made it any less meaningful, you are very much mistaken.
“No, I don't think they process it as a normal game,” Caps head coach Todd Reirden said of his player’s preparation for Wednesday’s game against the Penguins. “I think there's always a little something extra there.”
For many years, Pittsburgh was the major obstacle that stood in the way of Washington’s Stanley Cup dreams. Prior to last season, Alex Ovechkin had never defeated the Penguins in the playoffs despite facing them three times.
It is also not out of the realm of possibility to suggest the Caps could have hoisted another Cup before last season if not for Sidney Crosby and company, as Pittsburgh beat Washington in the playoffs in all five of the team’s Cup runs.
Things changed in 2018, however, as the Caps finally did the unthinkable. For just the second time in 11 postseason meetings, Washington defeated Pittsburgh.
“Being able to finally get through them last year was a huge part of us being able to win the Cup in the end,” Reirden said. “That's one of those watermarks in terms of your team growing and finally getting past something that's been in your way and that's a little bit of the same relief we talk about with winning a Stanley Cup, the relief you feel. It's also a little bit of a relief when we beat them.”
With that obstacle no longer hanging over their heads, it changes the narrative surrounding the rivalry this season. But it doesn't make it any less intense.
This time, the shoe is on the other foot. This time, Washington is the defending champ, and Pittsburgh is the team that’s chasing. The Caps are in first place in the Metropolitan Division, and Ovechkin is showing no signs of slowing down as the league’s most dominant scorer.
This year, the Caps have set the standard for the Penguins to try to match.
“It's taken on a different look to it now because we're the defending champs now so we know how that feels to be in their shoes and how much you're trying to gauge where your team's at,” Reirden said.
Wednesday’s game no doubt will feel very much like a rivalry in the stands. Amidst the sea of red, there will be pockets of black and gold clad fans with their terrible towels. There will be dueling “Let’s go Penguins” and “Let’s go Caps” chants, and plenty of boos for Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But that intensity won’t just be limited to the people off the ice. The players will feel it too.
“It’s 32 games into the year so I wouldn't expect it to be a playoff game,” Reirden said, “But I always think there's a little something extra in those games.”
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