T.J. Oshie rides on the back of Penguins defenseman Kris Letang as they collide behind the net. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
Sports columnist

The Washington Capitals needed this Wednesday night. Their season, before the arrival of the Pittsburgh Penguins, was all cream of wheat and unbuttered white bread, a cup of water — no ice — to the side. They needed the kind of Sriracha sauce only the Penguins can bring them this early. Some sizzle, please.

Enter Sidney Crosby. Enter the Penguins. Yeah, Pittsburgh had lost four straight. Yeah, both teams carried ho-hum 6-4-3 records. But it has to be against Pittsburgh that T.J. Oshie took a stick to the face, drawing blood and boos — and came back anyway. It has to be against Pittsburgh that Oshie absorbed Evgeni Malkin’s right shoulder with his head — immediately bringing concussion worries — and came back to score the goal with a minute and change left that delivered a 2-1 victory.

“Face is a little messed up,” said Oshie, a new Frankenstein stitch mark across the bridge of his nose. “But feelin’ pretty good now.”

The Capitals didn’t play that well. They needed each one of Braden Holtby’s 41 saves. Pittsburgh looked more physical and, at times, faster. But before Wednesday, the Capitals — excuse me, the defending Stanley Cup champion Capitals — hadn’t won even two straight games. Now, even on a night they were outplayed, they might have the jolt this season needed.

“We feel like this is a big week for us,” center Nicklas Backstrom said. Wins over Edmonton and Pittsburgh are behind them, with division rival Columbus still ahead. Excitement, engagement, interest — they all seem possible.


Evgeny Kuznetsov and Patric Hornqvist get into a pushing match in the first period. (Will Newton/Getty Images)

That’s been the thing: With these Caps, there’s not really anything to lose sleep over. But there’s also not much to get out of bed for, either. Given the enormity of this past spring’s accomplishment, maybe that’s kind of a best-case scenario. No team played more hockey than the Capitals last year, 106 games combined in the regular season and the playoffs. Throw in a few extra beers and a day with the Cup for each and every character, and, well, a home game against Florida in October might not boil your blood.

They needed Pittsburgh. Maybe that’s what it took for Holtby to refocus because he played his best game. Maybe that’s what it took to get the Capital One Arena crowd reengaged.

“Playing a top-tier team, that’s fun,” veteran defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “No offense to some teams, but yeah, there’s not a whole lot of excitement there at some points in October. But they count the same.”

It just doesn’t feel like it. So it was refreshing to welcome an opponent for which no faux motivation is needed. Even after taking the Cup and going through Pittsburgh to do it, the Penguins remain the Penguins. So when Crosby lingers a little longer to argue with the ref about one slight or another, he’s going to hear it — in a rather spirited fashion — from the crowd. When Carl Hagelin flattens Holtby in the crease, Alex Ovechkin is going to arrive swiftly in the corner to, um, discuss the matter with Hagelin, and a scrum will ensue.

And when Malkin skates into the Capitals’ zone on a Penguins’ power play in the third period, gets rid of the puck and then unloads his right shoulder into Oshie’s head — well, there’s the shot to really put the game on edge. Malkin received a five-minute major for an illegal check to the head and a game misconduct. Oshie wobbled to the dressing room.

Of course this happened against Pittsburgh. And, of course, Oshie came back and buried the game-winner.

“There’s a certain level of hate,” Oshie said earlier in the day. “There’s a level of respect. And when you mix those in, it usually makes for a pretty nasty, fun hockey game.”

By the end, it was both. The non-Oshie goals came from Crosby and Ovechkin, each on the power play, which is still as it should be. Ovi vs. Sid, Caps vs. Pens, and the season is no longer a slog. The emotions are again right there.

Of course, there’s a pragmatic element to Wednesday night’s events: By getting two clean points against Pittsburgh, Washington vaulted to second in the Metropolitan Division, trailing the New York Islanders (and former coach Barry Trotz) by just a point, and kept the Penguins reeling.

And yet they still understand their reality.

“I think we’ve been middling way too much in our game,” said defenseman John Carlson, who set up Oshie’s game-winner. “The consistency hasn’t been there.”

“Inconsistent” is the word new Coach Todd Reirden thinks fits best, too. Before Thanksgiving, that’s fine. What this team is not — and this is important — is dead. Through 14 games a year ago, the Caps were 7-6-1 — a remarkably similar, blah record. But in the dressing room, there was concern. It seems so long ago now, but the seven-game loss to the Penguins in the 2017 Stanley Cup playoffs nearly flattened the entire organization. The devastation lingered. You wondered whether these guys even wanted to be around each other.

Now, though, they’re collectively coming off their greatest triumph. They have, minus a fourth-line center and backup goaltender, the same team. So when Reirden says, “I think most teams through the first 20 games are still starting to form their identity and how they want to play,” shouldn’t this be a team that already knows who it is?

It’s not that easy.

“I used to think that it wouldn’t be different at all from the year before,” Niskanen said. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized, you’ve got to rebuild everything every year.”

It’s important to remember that the rebuilding this year has come without Tom Wilson, the rugged winger Washington deemed worthy of a six-year, $31 million contract in the offseason. Wilson has six more games to serve before the completion of his 20-game suspension for a needless preseason hit.

What you find in watching the Caps without Wilson is that Wilson just might be worth all the money they paid him. The top line of Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov functions properly when Wilson is there to create loose pucks that Kuzy gathers up, when Wilson is there to fly back on defense, when Wilson is there to create space for the other two. With Wilson, the lineup falls into place. Without him, Reirden has tried five different players at right wing, the latest being Dmitrij Jaskin — a guy they picked up off the waiver wire because they were preparing for Wilson’s suspension.

So there’s unevenness here, and it’s to be expected. It’s even to be forgiven. But what we know about the Capitals this year: Pittsburgh still brings out the fun, they’re still finding themselves — and they’re still the Stanley Cup champs.

For more by Barry Svrluga, visit washingtonpost.com/svrluga.