Sean Forman was a high school student in Pittsburgh when the Penguins won their first two Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992. Since moving to the D.C. area after graduate school in 2001, the 42-year-old father of three has watched his childhood team celebrate three more titles, including the league’s past two, with Pittsburgh bouncing the Capitals in the second round of the playoffs each time. As yet another postseason showdown between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin arrives, Forman admitted he can’t help but feel a little sorry for his adopted city’s postseason misfortune.
“It’s more than just the Caps,” Forman said. “Seeing it here with the Nationals and the Wizards, they just can’t get over the hump. I certainly have some sympathy for Capitals fans, but I would much rather see the Wizards do well than the Caps. They’ve been so good for so many years, and Ovechkin is a world-class player, but they can’t win the big game. Usually it’s been Pittsburgh in the way.”
Indeed, the Penguins have dispatched the Capitals in all five of their Stanley Cup-winning seasons and are an absurd 9-1 against Washington in 10 postseason series. With the teams set to meet in the second round of the playoffs for a third consecutive year, I wanted to get a sense from fans such as Forman of how it feels to be on the other side of this lopsided rivalry. Does watching the Penguins rip out the hearts of Capitals fans in new ways every spring ever get old? And is there any reason to believe the outcome will be different this time around?
For 35-year-old Rob Joswiak, who grew up in Pittsburgh, lived in D.C. for four years and is now working abroad, the answers to those two questions are no and no.
“It’s almost like a foregone conclusion, not if the Penguins are going to win, but how many games it’s going to take,” said Joswiak, who attended Pittsburgh’s Game 7 win over the Capitals in Washington last year and keeps a picture of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr in his living room. “I’m old enough to remember when we were down [three games to one] to Al Iafrate and the Caps [in 1992]. It just seems like it’s history repeating itself. Even with the Nats, when it comes to your sports teams, nobody can get over the hump. It’s like a certain mentality, a phobia of sorts.”
(This was the second mention of D.C. sports teams’ inability to get over the proverbial hump, prompting me to wonder whether these Yinzers were trolling Nationals Manager Dave Martinez’s spring training camel stunt.)
Lifelong Penguins fan Tony Cimaglia is less confident in Pittsburgh’s chances against the Capitals this year. Long before the playoffs, the 47-year-old predicted the Penguins would have a difficult time getting out of the second round, and his opinion hasn’t changed after Pittsburgh’s first-round win over the Flyers.
“The Capitals are a great team, and they’ve been good for a long time,” Cimaglia said. “I don’t mind watching them play. It’s good hockey. Ovechkin’s one of the best that’s ever been, and if the Caps beat the Pens this year, which I think they will, then more power to them.”
Cimaglia counts a number of Capitals fans as friends, and while he never tires of seeing the Penguins win the Stanley Cup at their expense, he doesn’t harbor any real animosity toward Washington.
“Not to sound smug, but why hate a team that can’t beat your team?” he said. “They’ve never beaten the Penguins when it matters. [Editor’s note: Hey, there was that one time.] I feel bad for my friends who are Caps fans, because you talk about just suffering. That’s what it is. They just suffer through it, year after year after year. It’s kind of like Cubs fans before they finally won the World Series. I think a lot of people outside of Washington enjoy Caps fans’ suffering; they enjoy the story line and seeing Caps fans go through it.”
Most of the Penguins fans I spoke with this week shared a surprising, to me anyway, level of respect for the Capitals and had at least a general understanding of the playoff malaise that has affected D.C.’s other sports teams for the past three decades.
“If you’re a Pens fan and you just say, ‘Oh, the Caps [stink],’ just as a reaction, that’s stupid, because the Caps have an incredibly strong team,” said Mike Woodel, a 21-year-old senior at the University of South Carolina who grew up in Erie, Pa. “This always turns out to be a very impassioned series on both sides. The fans really get into it; the players definitely get into it. It usually ends up going down to the wire.”
A Penguins supporter first and foremost, Woodel is also a fan of Capitals forward Andre Burakovsky after watching him play junior hockey for the Erie Otters of the Ontario Hockey League. Like Burakovsky and a handful of other players in this series, Woodel wasn’t alive for the Capitals’ only postseason victory over the Penguins in 1994.
“I don’t remember that series at all,” said 28-year-old Alex Klein, who moved to Philadelphia from Pittsburgh to attend Temple University in 2008 and has called the City of Brotherly Love home ever since. “Obviously, it doesn’t get old, because I like to see my team win, but you have to have some sympathy, because it’s not just the Capitals.”
“I do have some sympathy [for Capitals fans],” said 24-year-old Patrick Mittereder, a Pittsburgh native who roomed with a die-hard D.C. sports fan at Virginia Tech and now calls Baltimore home. “I would obviously hate to lose to the Caps, but then I could turn around and, if the Caps beat the Penguins, I would rather see them go to the Stanley Cup finals than have Tampa or Boston go. There is that rivalry there, but there also is that soft spot from knowing Caps fans and just D.C. fans in general. It extends beyond hockey. It’s tough to watch someone get so excited for the regular season in any sport and then be devastated in rounds one or two.”
After considering the question of whether he feels sympathy for his Capitals-loving friends, Cimaglia explained that he actually feels something closer to empathy.
“As a Steelers fan, I hate the Patriots and Tom Brady,” he said. “Because the Steelers simply can’t beat them, especially in the playoffs. From that standpoint, I know exactly what Caps fans are going through, and it stinks. But at the end of the day, I still want a piece of the Patriots and Brady, because I believe that it has to happen sooner or later.”
To be clear, I don’t know any Capitals fans who have asked for, or would even want, Penguins fans’ sympathies. My sense is that for all the Capitals fans dreading the possibility of another postseason exit at the hands of Pittsburgh, there are fans excited for another shot at the champs. One of these years, the Capitals will break through. Why not this one?
“I think if Washington manages to pull it out this year, they might very well win it all,” Woodel said. “Tampa Bay is going to be an incredibly difficult opponent to get by, but if they win this one, they’re going to have momentum coming out of their ears. If I was a Caps fan, I’d be worried, but I’d be excited that it’s another chance to prove they’re an elite franchise.”
“If the Capitals are going to win, it would be appropriate to go through Pittsburgh,” Forman said. “If they were playing the Rangers, the Islanders or someone else in this round and they got to the Eastern Conference finals, I don’t know if it would be as rewarding.”
Joswiak is convinced that whichever team wins this series has the best chance to win the Stanley Cup, and he wouldn’t begrudge the Capitals and their fans if this, at long last, was their year.
“If we lose to the Capitals and they go on to win it, then that means we lost to the best team,” he said. “That’s something to hang your hat on. If the stars align and the Caps win the series, then hats off to them and good luck the rest of the way.”
Should Washington advance to the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 1998, Klein will be rooting for them to go all the way, because, he said, it would be “nice to see Ovechkin win a Stanley Cup.”
“He’s a great player,” Klein said. “I can’t hate Washington, because they’re not dirty. I think all their players are pretty good. They still have [Matt] Niskanen and [Brooks] Orpik — former Penguins. Their crowd doesn’t annoy me. I just don’t have any hatred for the Capitals, and I would be perfectly fine if Washington won the Cup.”
That said, he’s rooting for a Pittsburgh sweep, right?
“I want a seven-game series, just to break Capitals fans’ hearts again,” Klein said. “Not a sweep. That’s way too quick and easy.”
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