Capitals Ready to Exorcise Old Demons Against Penguins

The Capitals and Penguins boast dueling superstars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and have split their last eight regular-season games, but where it counts -- in the postseason -- Pittsburgh has prevailed seven of eight times.
By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

When the Pittsburgh Penguins visit Verizon Center for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals this afternoon, the NHL's top three scorers and its past two MVPs will share a sheet of ice and scrap for the same spotlight.

Indeed, this series will have star power to spare. But that's not the only reason some Washington Capitals fans will experience an elevated heart rate. For the pre-Alex Ovechkin era supporters, the mere mention of "Penguins" and "postseason" in the same sentence is enough to cause palpitations.

Long before Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, there were Petr Nedved, the Great Scheduling Controversy and Martin Straka.

"I don't know nothing," Ovechkin said, shrugging his broad shoulders. "I don't really care. I don't like history. I don't like looking back 10 years ago, 15 years ago."

To comprehend why this series has such significance for longtime fans and employees of the Capitals, one must first understand what they've been through.

The Capitals and Penguins have met seven times in the playoffs. Pittsburgh has prevailed six times, twice rallying from a 3-1 deficit and once from a 2-0 hole.

Of all of the Capitals' postseason folly and failure against the Penguins, none compares to the epic defeat on April 24, 1996. Mario Lemieux had been ejected. JoƩ Juneau had been stoned on a penalty shot in overtime by Penguins goaltender Ken Wregget. Then, sometime after 2 a.m., with 45 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime, Nedved scored to lift the Penguins to a 3-2 victory in the fifth-longest game in NHL history.

The series went back to Pittsburgh tied 2-2 and the Capitals wound up losing in six, a collapse made all the more painful by how it had begun, with Washington winning Games 1 and 2 on the road.

"Our overtime defeats have been legendary," said longtime Capitals radio play-by-play voice Ron Weber, who retired in 1997 after 23 years behind the microphone. "It didn't have finality of the [Pat] LaFontaine goal for the Islanders because that was in a seventh game. But let's put it this way: After Nedved scored, I could just feel the air go out of our balloon. It was a stake through the heart."

The Capitals and Penguins didn't meet in the playoffs again until the 2000 quarterfinals. Washington had captured the Southeast Division, racked up 102 points and earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference. But the home-ice advantage the Capitals had worked all season to secure was taken from them because of scheduling conflicts at Mellon Arena, which was booked with a wrestling show, a dance show and figure skating.

So instead of the series' first two games being hosted in Washington, only Game 1 was. Games 2 and 3 were in Pittsburgh, a situation that elicited this now-famous quote from then-Coach Ron Wilson: "I'm willing to give Pittsburgh all seven of our games if they want them and we'll go in there and beat them anyway."

That's not exactly how things unfolded. The Penguins won Game 1 by a score of 7-0, then took the series 4-1.

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