CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — Pittsburgh Penguins forward Eric Fehr looked over and smiled as he finished regaling another reporter with the story of how he became a Canadian potato farmer in recent offseasons. It’s a familiar quirk for Washington hockey fans and, if not for the Penguins logo in the middle of the room and the black-and-gold hockey gear hanging from the locker stall, this easily could have been any day at Kettler Capitals Iceplex over the past decade.
“Some of the best land is in southern Manitoba, believe it or not,” Fehr said earnestly.
For Fehr, though, this hyped Eastern Conference semifinal series will be an entirely different experience. The former Capitals forward signed a three-year, $6 million contract with Pittsburgh this offseason, well aware what joining the other side of this rivalry might mean.
This week, he is one of the go-to sources for perspective on the shared history between the Penguins and Capitals, the evolution of stars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and even potato farming. Fehr said he has no regrets about leaving Washington, which showed initial interest in re-signing him last offseason before electing to spend its available cap money on more pressing needs..
Drafted in the first round of the 2003 NHL draft, Fehr is the latest remnant from the Capitals’ past that they must contend with in these Stanley Cup playoffs. Like former goalie Michal Neuvirth, who almost single-handedly won two games for the Flyers in the first round, Fehr’s nine years in Washington were hard to define. Oft-injured at times, he never eclipsed 39 points during a season, never appeared in more than 75 games and got traded to Winnipeg for the 2011-12 season only to return to Washington the next offseason. But his long reach was invaluable on the penalty kill and he successfully morphed from a potential top-six wing to an effective checking-line center by the end of his tenure.
Fehr’s best work also came against Pittsburgh. He had 14 points in 24 career games facing the Penguins, more than he registered against any other team. He memorably scored two goals in Washington’s 3-1 win over Pittsburgh in the 2011 Winter Classic.
“I knew that come free agency day, when this team came calling, I knew there was going to be, not necessarily an uproar, but I knew that Caps fans would be upset about it,” Fehr said Tuesday. “But at the end of the day, it was a good opportunity for me. It was a good fit, and I was excited about the team that was here having played against them for as many years as I did. Knowing how good they are, I wanted to be a part of that.”
Finding a comfort level proved awkward at first, Fehr admitted, especially as he recovered from offseason elbow surgery during the first months of the regular season. And there will be some more angst when he first takes the ice Thursday for Game 1.
Fehr said “it’s never easy playing against friends” with the stakes so high. Penguins captain Sidney Crosby conceded, for instance, it’s still a bit odd to see former Penguins Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik wearing Capitals’ red.
But the Penguins also dealt with this in the first round with forward Carl Hagelin, who scored an overtime game winner to eliminate Pittsburgh from the postseason last year as a member of the New York Rangers. This season, he scored for the Penguins when they eliminated the Rangers in Game 5. Such is life in the free agency era.
“Everyone quickly forgets that and you’re happy to have him in the room,” Crosby said of Fehr and Hagelin. “I think you turn the page pretty quick and you welcome them with open arms.”
Given the multitude of roles Fehr fills with the Penguins now, his transition was smooth upon returning to full health. As in Washington, he’s a prominent penalty killer and can easily be shuffled into different positions along with up and down the lineup. Coach Mike Sullivan called Fehr’s versatility “invaluable” Tuesday, and he scored a goal in Game 4 against the Rangers as part of center Evgeni Malkin’s line.
Fehr had eight goals and six assists in 55 games during the regular season, but he often thought about his former team as it raced away with the Presidents’ Trophy. He had already guessed what the ending to the story could be.
“Kind of saw this coming,” Fehr said. “I knew if we wanted a chance to win the Cup, it was going to have to go through Washington.”