Alex Ovechkin was smiling, not shuddering, at the subject of the Washington Capitals’ second-round opponent. “I can’t wait,” Ovechkin said immediately after his team advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
He can’t wait to play the defending Stanley Cup champions? The team that has ended his season three times over the course of his career?
“There’s not a person in this locker room or on our coaching staff that doesn’t want to play the Penguins,” Capitals Coach Barry Trotz said. “That’s probably fitting. We’re actually quite excited about it.”
Because of a playoff format that pits division opponents against each other through the first two rounds, this will be the third straight second-round meeting between Washington and Pittsburgh. The Penguins have historically owned the matchup, 9-1 all time against the Capitals in postseason series. The past two years, Pittsburgh went on to win consecutive championships after ousting a Washington team that was the league’s best in the regular season. The last time the Capitals beat the Penguins in a playoff series was 1994, before a handful of players on both teams were even born.
But the Capitals aren’t worried about running into the same wall again, never advancing past the second round with Ovechkin in part because Sidney Crosby and the Penguins have barred their way. They know that if they’re going to accomplish their ultimate goal of winning a Stanley Cup, they’re going to first get past the team that’s caused them the most heartbreak.
“One day, it has to happen,” Ovechkin said. “If we want to get success, we have to beat Pittsburgh and move forward.”
“As a competitor, as a gamer, it’s the type of matchup you want,” forward Tom Wilson said. “You lose last year, and if you had said we could fast-forward to this year and be in the same position and have a chance to go at them again, we’d have said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it. Let’s start right now,’ because you have that bitter feeling. Every year, you’re going to say Caps-Pens, it’s typical, and, yeah, we’re familiar, we’ve played each other a bunch. And they’ve got the best of us both times, so hopefully we’re going to turn that around.”
As much as this has a “Groundhog Day” feel to it, both teams have changed supporting casts in the past year. Washington’s core is intact with Ovechkin and center Nicklas Backstrom, but an expansion draft and salary-cap constraints over the summer forced the exits of two top-six forwards and three defensemen. Like the Penguins the past two years, the Capitals have had to lean on rookies more — three will be in the lineup for Washington this series — and veteran depth forwards. Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly, for example, are new to the rivalry this year.
A blue line that was considered a weakness for the Capitals at one point this season was a strength for them in the first round against Columbus, when the Blue Jackets stars were contained over the final three games. The Penguins’ offense will be another challenge entirely after they averaged 4.67 goals per game in their series against the Flyers and 3.29 goals per game during the regular season, third-best in the league. But the benefit of playing a team as often as the Capitals have faced the Penguins is better preparation for certain tendencies.
“Less scouting, shorter days,” Trotz said with a chuckle. “No, we’ve played a lot of matches against them. They know how we play, we know how they play. We’ll be looking for those little edges you can get when you start playing teams multiple times.”
The Penguins have also experienced some roster turnover, losing defenseman Trevor Daley in free agency last summer and dealing Ian Cole during the season. Top blue-liner Kris Letang was injured a year ago, but he’s back in the lineup. Pittsburgh acquired Derick Brassard before the trade deadline to center its third line and match Washington’s depth down the middle with Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Lars Eller and Jay Beagle. Marc-Andre Fleury was in net for the injured Matt Murray a year ago, but Fleury is now the top goaltender for the Vegas Golden Knights and the Capitals will have to contend with Murray.
They can’t wait.
“Somebody’s going to beat them eventually, so let’s get excited about our opportunity,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “Maybe we’re the team to do it.”
“No one in this room has been like, ‘Oh, no, not the Penguins again,’ ” Smith-Pelly said. “No one has been like, ‘Oh, we wish they would have lost.’ There has been none of that talk here. We know if we’re going to get to our ultimate goal, we’re going to have to get through the best teams. I think everyone would say the same thing.
“We feel great going into the top of this series. We’re not worried about what happened in previous years. It’s a new year, new teams on both sides.”
Roman Stubbs and Adam Kilgore contributed to this story.