For many younger hockey fans the Penguins vs Capitals rivalry started when superstars Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin came into the league for their respective teams. However, the history of the two teams meeting up in the playoffs stems back much further with the Penguins getting the last laugh nearly every playoff series. Here’s how we got to where we are now as the Pens and Caps meet up for a third consecutive year in the playoffs.
The rivalry was born in the 1991 playoffs, where the Penguins entered the playoffs as the first seed in the Patrick Division with 88 points. The Capitals finished 3rd in the division with a 37-36-7 record, but defeated the 2nd seed New York Rangers to advance to the second round against Pittsburgh.
The Pens had the rare (as far as this rivalry is concerned) home ice advantage, but it was the Caps who took game one in Civic Arena. Game two was a wild back and forth affair before Kevin Stevens would bury a great pass from Ron Francis in overtime past Caps goalie Mike Liut to win the game 7-6 and knot the series up at one.
The Pens would take the next two games in Washington and finish the series off in game 5 in Pittsburgh, en route to their first ever Stanley Cup championship.
The following year the two teams met in the first round, and this time it was the Caps finishing ahead of the Pens in the Patrick division, with 98 points to Pittsburgh’s 87 points.
Washington won the first 2 games in DC, and split games 3 & 4 in Pittsburgh to take a 3-1 stranglehold on the series. The Pens stormed back however, winning games 5 and 6 by a combined score of 11-6, and then sealed a 3-1 game 7 victory at the Capital Centre in Washington.
The Pens would go onto beat the Rangers in 6 games, and then sweep both Boston and Chicago to win their second consecutive Stanley Cup.
The lone bright spot for Washington came in the 1994 playoffs where the Caps entered the playoffs as the 7th seed, facing off against the 2nd seeded Penguins, fresh off a monumental upset loss in the playoffs the year prior to the New York Islanders.
The Caps split the first two games in Pittsburgh and took games 3 and 4 in DC to once again take a 3-1 series lead. Despite a game 5 loss in Pittsburgh, the Caps closed the series in game 6 in DC by a score of 6-3.
The underdog Capitals would then face the vaunted Rangers in the 2nd round, and came up short in 5 games to the eventual Stanley Cup winners.
In 1995 the two squads met once again in the first round, with the Pens as the 3 seed and Caps as the 6 seed.
After splitting the first two games in Pittsburgh, the Caps would once again win both games 3 and 4 in DC by a combined score of 12-4 to grab a 3-1 series lead.
Game 5 in Pittsburgh went to overtime, and with their backs against the wall, Penguins legend Luc Robitaille, yes you read that right would beat Washington goalie Don Beaupre to keep the Pens hopes alive.
Despite being heavily outshot in both games 6 and 7, the Penguins would take both of those games by a combined score of 10-1, as Pens cult icon Ken Wregget and his legendary mask would stop 63 of 64 Capitals shots in those 2 games to complete the comeback.
An exhausted Pens squad couldn’t keep the magic going however, as they would lose in 5 games to the upstart New Jersey Devils in the 2nd round. The Devils would later sweep the Red Wings in the finals to win their first ever Stanley Cup.
1996 provided arguably one of the wildest and most memorable series between the two teams in history. Pittsburgh entered the playoffs as the #2 seed and featured Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr who scored 161 and 149 points respectively in the regular season.
The 7th ranked Caps took both games 1 and 2 in Pittsburgh, and the Pens responded with a 4-1 win in game 3 in DC.
Game 4 was one for the ages, as Penguins starting goalie Tom Barrasso left the game after the first period due to back spasms and Ken Wregget had to enter the game. Washington scored on their first shot on Wregget to take a 2-0 lead in the 2nd period. After a Jagr goal trimmed the Washington lead to 2-1, Mario Lemieux was given a game misconduct for his attack on Caps forward Todd Krygier.
The Penguins would add a Power Play goal in the 3rd period to tie the game at 2, but the game was far from over.
One overtime turned into two, and the Caps were inches away from ending the game in double overtime before Pens defenseman Chris Tamer knocked away a puck on his own goal line, but also knocked the net off its moorings in the process, leading to a penalty shot for Washington’s Joey Juneau, that Wregget would ultimately deny.
The two teams would play on into the night, as two overtimes would become three and then four. The Pens would go on the powerplay at the end of the fourth overtime, and Petr Nedvěd would finally find the twine with 45 seconds remaining in the fourth overtime on the Pens’ 65th shot on goal to even the series up at two games apiece.
Wregget turned away 53 of 54 Capital shots. At the time, the game was the 3rd longest in NHL history, and the longest since 1936. It now sits as the fifth longest game of all-time.
The Caps wouldn’t be able to recover from the crushing loss and would lose games 5 and 6, but not before seeing Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld going at it on the bench at the end of game 5 with Pens coaches Eddie Johnston and Bryan Trottier.
And later on getting thrown out of the game and having to walk across the Civic Arena ice, even taking a moment to taunt the fans before he left.
The Pens would go onto beat the Rangers 4-1 in the second round, and were the heavy favorites against the Florida Panthers in the conference finals. The rats in Florida proved too much for the Pens though, who were upset by the Panthers in 7 games.
The rivalry took a healthy break until the new millennium in 2000, when the 2nd seeded Caps faced off against 7th seeded Pittsburgh in the first round, who were playing against Washington in the playoffs without Mario Lemieux for the first time. After a 7-0 throttling of the Caps in game 1, Jaromir Jagr sniped an OT goal in game 2 to give the Pens a 2-0 series lead.
The Pens would take game 3 as well and ultimately prevail 4-1 over Washington.
The Penguins would move onto play Philadelphia in the second round, where they endured another marathon in game 3, losing in the 5th overtime of game 3 via a Keith Primeau goal past Ron Tugnutt , and would ultimately lose the series 4-2.
2001 was a special year in Pittsburgh, as Mario Lemieux returned from retirement earlier in the season. The Pens went into the playoffs as the 6th seed, where they once again faced the 3rd seeded Capitals.
In the lowest-scoring series ever between the two, Washington would take game one 1-0 before Pittsburgh bounced back for a 2-1 win in game 2. After a 3-0 Pens win in game 3, Jeff Halpern finally scored the first ever playoff OT goal against the Penguins in franchise history against Pittsburgh’s Johan Hedberg and his blue Manitoba Moose mask to knot the series at 2.
After a 2-1 Pittsburgh win in game 5, Martin Straka closed the door of the series in OT of game 6 off of a brutal Sergei Gonchar giveaway.
The Pens would then move onto beat Buffalo in 7 games featuring another Straka OT goal in game 6 and then elite sniper Darius Kasparaitis’ wrister past Dominik Hasek in OT of game 7 to propel the Pens with an ECF matchup against the powerful Devils, who beat them in 5 games.
Following the 2001 playoffs, Jaromir Jagr would be traded by Pittsburgh to the Capitals over the summer in exchange for 3 prospects who ended up being so terrible I’m not going to bother researching their names, but one of them was Kris Beech. The Penguins quickly entered a rebuild, finishing at the bottom of the standings from 2001-2006 and drafting Marc-Andre Fleury, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and hitting the lottery with some guy named Sidney Crosby. The Caps meanwhile missed the playoffs in 2002, before getting knocked out in the first round in 2003 by Tampa Bay. The Caps finished at the bottom of the standings from 2003-2007 to start a rebuild of their own, using their high draft picks to grab Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green, and trading the often disinterested looking Jagr to the Rangers in 2004 for Anson Carter.
Both teams gained steam in the late-2000s to lead to the penultimate semi-finals series in 2009, with the 2nd seeded Caps hosting the 4th seeded Pens.
Upstart and non-English speaking goalie Semyon Varlamov stole the show in the first 2 games as the Caps won 3-2 in game one, and 4-3 in game 2 that featured hat tricks from both Crosby and Ovechkin.
The Caps went back to Pittsburgh with a 2-0 lead, but Kris Letang kept the Penguins hopes alive with an OT goal in game 3, and the Pens took game 4 as well to head back to Washington knotted up.
In a bizarre scheduling conflict due to a Yanni concert in Pittsburgh, game 5 was played the following day, where Evgeni Malkin sped past defenseman Sergei Fedorov and banked a shot off Caps D Tom Poti in past Varlamov in OT to take game 5 and a series lead.
The Caps evened the series in game 6 thanks to overtime heroics by Dave Steckel, and the series moved to a highly anticipated game 7 in Washington.
In what had been an extremely even series up to that point, Marc-Andre Fleury made one of the biggest saves of his career to rob Ovechkin three minutes into the game and the Penguins never looked back, dominating the Caps 6-2, then defeating Carolina and Detroit en route to their third Stanley Cup championship.
Both teams had reasonable success in the years that followed, but still came up short of their expectations. The Capitals won the Presidents trophy in 2010 but lost to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal Canadiens in the first round. Penguins fans were so busy laughing at the result of that series that by the time they stopped, they realized Halak had beat the Pens in 7 games as well. Besides a 2013 sweep by Boston in the ECF for Pittsburgh, neither team would get past the second round until new coaches Barry Trotz and Mike Sullivan met in 2016.
The Presidents trophy winning Caps had home ice advantage in 2016 once again, against the Penguins without starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, and with some kid named Matt Murray between the pipes.
Game one was a crowd pleaser in Washington as TJ Oshie scored in overtime to grab a 1-0 series lead.
After 2 straight Penguins wins, Pens defenseman Kris Letang was suspended for a pivotal game 4. They would prevail though as Patric Hornqvist would score the goal in overtime after an unfortunate bounce off of Caps D Mike Weber to take a 3-1 series lead.
After a game 5 Washington victory, the series headed back to game 6 in Pittsburgh featuring one of the most bizarre meltdowns in the history of the rivalry. After going ahead 3-0, the Penguins took not one , not two, but THREE delay of game penalties in the span of 4 minutes for flipping the puck over the glass, that eventually led to the Caps tying the game at 3 and heading towards overtime.
Seven minutes into the overtime period, the Penguins’ HBK line struck as Nick Bonino cashed in with assists from Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel to knock the Caps out of the playoffs again. The Penguins would go onto defeat Tampa Bay and San Jose to capture their 4th Stanley Cup.
The 2017 playoffs had a lot of similarities to the previous year: Caps winning the Presidents trophy and another playoff matchup in round two featuring many of the same players. The Penguins though, were without #1 D Kris Letang who was shut down earlier in the year due to neck surgery.
The Pens grabbed the first two in DC, but the Caps fought off a late Pens comeback in game 3 and won the game in overtime thanks to an OT goal by fan favorite Kevin Shattenkirk.
The Pens pulled off a huge performance in game 4 to win without Sidney Crosby, and the Caps started hearing the demons calling again, down 3-1 in a series against Pittsburgh. Washington fought back though, winning 4-2 in game 5 and 5-2 in game 6 to head for a deciding game 7 in Washington.
In an agonizing game for Caps fans, the Penguins shutout the Caps 2-0 in Washington behind a 29 save performance by Marc-Andre Fleury. The Penguins would then defeat Ottawa and Nashville to win their 5th Stanley Cup.
*Credit for timeline/accuracy by user HandsLikeLuke on Reddit
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