Matt Gajtka is the Penguins beat reporter and Featured Writer for Sports Haze Pittsburgh. He also hosts “The Gospel of Hockey,” an NHL talk show on 1570 WHTX in Warren, Ohio (www.1570theblizzard.com ). He is giving the Pittsburgh view on the Caps/Pens rivalry. For Rock the Red’s take on the Washington side of the rivalry, check out our story at Sports Haze.
Ask a random sampling of Pittsburgh Penguins fans who they feel the team’s biggest rival is, and the Philadelphia Flyers will likely win by a healthy margin over the second-place finisher.
But, if those same Pens followers are being truly honest with themselves, they’ll concede that the Washington Capitals have provided as many, if not more memorable moments than the Flyers in their frequent clashes with the Flightless Fowl.
Of course, the sheer hatred between the Penguins and the Flyers is nearly without peer in the rest of the sporting world, but the basis for this cross-state feud is somewhat counterintuitive. Yes, both teams entered the NHL in 1967, but the Flyers won the Stanley Cup in their seventh and eighth seasons while the Pens didn’t make any significant playoff noise until their third decade of existence.
Let’s not forget that Pittsburgh once went nearly a decade without winning in Philadelphia and didn’t land any considerable blows in the rivalry until 2008-09, when the Penguins eliminated the Flyers in back-to-back postseasons.
Conversely, the Capitals and Penguins franchises have followed similar trajectories, at least in the realm of regular-season accomplishments. Much like Pittsburgh, Washington was more miss than hit until the early 1990s, when both teams embarked on runs of concordant excellence.
In fact, while the Penguins’ streak of postseason appearances reached an impressive 11 in a row and 12 out of 13 in 2001, the Capitals put together a more impressive 14 straight and 18 of 21 by the spring of 2003.
But coincidental success alone does not create enmity. As any longtime follower of either franchise can relate, the Pens-Caps playoff clashes of the 1990s/early 2000s laid the groundwork for what today is one of the NHL’s best adversarial relationships.
From the Pittsburgh perspective, the Capitals have seemingly always been standing in the way whenever spring arrives. Luckily for the Penguins, they have managed to top the Caps in seven out of eight playoff series, including seventh-game triumphs in three of those.
Since the 2004-05 NHL lockout, personalities have driven the rivalry along in addition to both clubs’ resurgences. Because of the aforementioned lost season, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby – No. 1 overall selections in the 2004 and ’05 NHL Entry Drafts, respectively – entered the league together and thus were destined to have their careers measured against each other.
The star-level talent on both sides has combined with the youthful energy of the teams and fan bases to create the new century’s version the bloodbath that was Detroit-Colorado in the 1990s.
Hockey fans have lapped up any chance to watch these two charismatic bulls lock horns, as evidenced by record numbers for this year’s Winter Classic in Pittsburgh that posted the highest ratings for a regular season matchup since the 1970s. The recently completed HBO “24/7” television series ratcheted the intensity up even further, even including the ever elusive “casual” sports fan in the fun.
While the emotions of repeated high-leverage battles can blind even the most rational observer, fans from Pittsburgh and Washington would be well-advised to appreciate this time at the center of NHL attention.
Of course, the next edition of Pens-Caps falls on Super Sunday, a fitting day for hockey’s three-ring circus to burn another episode into our brains.