We would like to thank our friends at Sports Haze Pittsburgh for sharing their views on the Capitals/Penguins rivalry on Rock the Red on Sunday. This is the article they published from the Washington perspective by the Rock the Red author formerly known as Marshall Pirate.
One of my earliest hockey memories is sitting down with my dad and watching the Caps take on the Penguins in the playoffs on April 19, 1991. Nothing would have made a 7-year old happier than seeing his favorite hockey team win; in this case, Game 2 of the Patrick Division Final, but it was not to be.
The Capitals lost the game, 7-6 in overtime on a Kevin Stevens tally, and lost the next three games to drop the series. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup, a year after the Caps were just one series away. That’s when the bitterness began.
The next season was more of the same. The Capitals had excellent hockey players, including John Druce, Michal Pivonka, and Dimitri Khristich, who all scored game-winning goals against the Penguins as the Caps took 2-0 and 3-1 series leads in the first round of the playoffs.
How the Penguins came back from that is still a mystery, but Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr scored the last two game-winning goals to take the series, and eventually the Stanley Cup. The bitterness continued.
The Capitals didn’t play the Penguins again in the playoffs until 1993-94, but this time they were triumphant. This was payback for those two other seasons of frustration. While Jaromir Jagr had a game-winning goal in that series, Joe Juneau and Peter Bondra were greater, and Calle Johansson put the series away in Game 6.
It was a pyhrric victory though, as the Capitals lost to the Stanley Cup champion New York Rangers in the next round.
We thought we had firgured out the Penguins by the next time we faced them; the first round of the 1994-95 playoffs, and certainly a 3-1 series lead would give that impression, but again it was not meant to be.
A lucky bounce in overtime of Game 5 would have sealed the deal for the Caps, but “Lucky” Luc Robitaille extended the series. The Caps only scored 1 goal over the next two games, and Jaromir Jagr had another game-winning goal.
The Capitals were not hurting for talent. Peter Bondra had led the league in scoring with 34 goals and the Caps had All-Rookie goalie Jim Carey, but the Mario-less Penguins found a way. It had happened again, and the bitterness we thought was over after ’94 was back as if nothing had happened.
The 1995-96 season saw Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka tear up the league in scoring, but not in the way Jaromir Jagr and Mario Lemieux did. The Capitals thought they had the goalie for the task this time, as Jim Carey took the Vezina Trophy with 9 shutouts, but he faltered and exchanged starts with his backup Olaf Kolzig.
The Caps went up 2-0 in the first round of the playoffs on the strength of game-winning goals by grinder Todd Krygier and star Peter Bondra. The Caps could have put a stranglehold on the series with a triple-overtime penalty shot goal in Game 4, but Joe Juneau missed. Petr Nedved scored in the 4th overtime to tie the series at 2, and the Caps dropped the next two as well.
There was a large amount of turnover on both teams by the time they faced each other again in 1999-00. The Caps had exorcised their first-round demons by making the Stanley Cup Final in 1998, and they had finished No. 2 in the Eastern Conference.
Washington had a strong defense and supposedly home-ice advantage. The Penguins were in disarray, barely managing to make the playoffs as the No. 7 seed and avoiding bankruptcy by the slimmest of margins when Mario Lemieux took over the team.
The Mellon Arena, unsure of the Penguins’ future, had scheduled the circus to come to town, meaning the Caps ceded home-ice advantage (1-2-2-1-1 instead of 2-2-1-1-1). Vezina Trophy-winning goaltended Olaf Kolzig allowed 6 goals Game 1 before the series moved to Pittsburgh for the next two games.
The Caps top checking line of Steve Konowalchuk-Jeff Halpern-and Ulf Dahlen did yeoman’s work trying to slow down Jaromir Jagr, but they could not stop the team from falling behind 3-0 in the series.
This teenage fan was at Game 4, and watched as Halpern and Kono scored and the Caps got a game back, but Game 5 was a tragedy.
The hero of 1994, Calle Johansson, watched a Jaromir Jagr centering pass bounce off his knee and into his own goal to seal the series. The demons were back with a vengeance.
Just when we thought we were safe from Mario Lemieux forever, he returned to the NHL in December 2000. When the Caps again won their division and secured home-ice advantage. They had some of the best scoring talent in the league with Adam Oates and Peter Bondra, plus a top goalie and the best checking line.
None of that mattered against the two-lined juggernaut of the Penguins. Mario Lemieux scored two game winners as the Penguins took another playoff series from the Caps.
By the time 2009 rolled around, the bitterness was well-established. This had little to do with Sidney Crosby and everything to do with the crushed hopes of the fans for almost 20 years.