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Winter Classic: Capitals-Penguins rivalry extends to affiliates

After months of anticipation, the excitement of playing in the Winter Classic feels a lot more real to the Washington Capitals on Wednesday when they participate in their first outdoor practice on the rink at the Chevy Chase Club.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 31, 2010; 1:06 AM

PITTSBURGH - Jay Beagle has joined the Capitals from the minors only sporadically, but no one needs to tell the forward about the intensity of Washington's games against its top rival, the Pittsburgh Penguins. That's because Beagle, like others who have spent substantial time in the American Hockey League, is already familiar with the heady competition between the two franchises, thanks to the heated history between the squads' top minor league affiliates.

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"For the three years I've been there, Wilkes-Barre and Hershey have always had a really strong rivalry," said Beagle, who has scored two goals in his past four games with the Capitals. "It's because we're always fighting for first place and always contenders. You don't forget what happens in games in a rivalry like it; we don't have to be reminded who we're playing against."

Roughly 100 Pennsylvania miles separate the Hershey Bears and Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins, and they're far from friendly neighbors. Both the Bears and Penguins have grown accustomed to competing for their league's top prize in the Calder Cup over the past decade, leading to playoff series and fierce contests any time they meet.

That included Thursday, when Hershey defeated Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, 1-0, on a deflection goal credited to Keith Aucoin before 13,567 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.

Since the 2000-01 season, Hershey or Wilkes-Barre has played in the Calder Cup final seven out of 10 times, and the teams endured playoff series against each other in five of those years. The Bears won the postseason battle in 2009, 2007 and 2006, while the Penguins claimed victories in 2008 and 2001.

"They have a lot of ability over there, and everyone's always talking about who's more talented who's going to go deeper in the playoffs and everyone's comparing you to each other," said right wing Andrew Gordon, who the Capitals returned to the Bears on Wednesday. "I think that just brings out the best competitor in all of us, regardless of who's in the lineup."

Heading into Friday's practice at Heinz Field in preparation for the NHL's Winter Classic on New Year's Day, the Capitals have 11 players - Beagle, Mathieu Perreault, Karl Alzner, John Carlson, Michal Neuvirth, Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr, David Steckel, Jeff Schultz, Mike Green and Tyler Sloan - on their active roster who spent time with the Bears.

There are 11 players on the Pittsburgh roster with Wilkes-Barre ties as well, including Marc-Andre Fleury, Brooks Orpik, Kris Letang, Alex Goligoski, Tyler Kennedy, Max Talbot, Mark Letestu, Chris Conner, Dustin Jeffrey, Deryk Engelland and Ben Lovejoy.

"We've had a lot of good battles, and it's fun to beat those guys," Alzner said. "There's probably a couple certain guys, especially, just coming up and seeing the other guys [for Pittsburgh] that brings you into that rivalry and you feel like you're a big part of it."

If there was ever a moment that highlighted the depth of the two organizations' rivalry, it was the spring of 2009, when the NHL and AHL teams met in their respective posteasons.

The Capitals wound up losing their Eastern Conference semifinal series to the Penguins in seven games, and the Bears felt a little added pressure to defeat Wilkes-Barre in the AHL's East Division finals to avoid a dual-level defeat. Hershey won that series in seven games.

"When the Capitals lost, we all knew we had to beat them," said Neuvirth, who played his first career contest against Pittsburgh in a 3-2 shootout loss on Dec. 23. "I used to love to play games against Wilkes-Barre. It's a more exciting, more intense thing and it's not hard to get going for games against these guys. It's the same up here."


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