It is a rivalry that has actually been raging for the better part of the past 20 plus years. Many modern hockey fans believe that the Caps vs. Pens rivalry began with Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. That is far from the case.
It was actually back in 1991 when the two teams would meet in the playoffs for the first time. The Pens would easily dispatch the Caps in the Eastern Conference semifinals in five games en route to their first Stanley Cup.
Back then, the Penguins had another superstar on their team by the name of Mario Lemieux and Lemieux was one of the best ever. Along the way, the Pens would add players like Ron Francis, Jaromir Jagr and Ulf Samuelsson to the roster and the Penguins would repeat as champions in 1992.
To get there, the Pens would again defeat the Caps in the playoffs but this time they would rally from a 3-1 series deficit to break the hearts of Caps fans everywhere.
The Caps had no shortage of talent back in those days either as they had players like Dino Ciccarelli, Mike Ridley and Kevin Hatcher leading the way. But when the Pens capped off that tremendous rally in the 1992 playoffs, the seeds of this great rivalry were truly planted.
The teams have met in the playoffs a stunning eight times over the years. Even more surprising is the fact that the Penguins have won the series seven of eight times. Twice they have overcome a 3-1 series deficit and twice more they were able to climb out of a 2-0 series hole.
True enough, the rivalry took on a new dimension in 2004 when the Caps drafted Alexander Ovechkin No. 1 overall and the Pens took his countryman Evgeni Malkin with the second pick. Then, when the Pens drafted Sidney Crosby No. 1 overall in the 2005 draft, it was game on between these two teams.
The two teams played one of the all-time great playoff series during the 2009 NHL playoffs and then staged one of the most memorable Winter Classic games so far in 2011.
The rivalry has taken a step back the past couple of years due to Sidney Crosby's struggles to recover from concussions and Alexander Ovechkin's numbers declining somewhat. And as for the game on Tuesday, you are looking at teams going in opposite directions: the Pens have won nine in a row and are the best team in the Eastern Conference while the Caps sit seven points out of the final playoff spot and are a full 19 points inferior to the Pens as far as points are concerned.
Nevertheless, the rivalry has produced some really memorable moments. Let's take a look at five memorable moments from this classic rivalry.
After getting run off the ice in five games during the 1991 NHL playoffs, the Caps were looking for a measure of revenge against the Penguins in the 1992 playoffs.
Things started off really well for the Caps. The Caps won Games 1 and 2 on home ice by a combined score of 9-3. The Pens would finally get on track with a 6-4 win in Game 3 in Pittsburgh.
But when Dino Ciccarelli scored four goals, and the Caps routed the Pens 7-2 in Pittsburgh in Game 4, the series—along with the Penguins' hopes of repeating as Stanley Cup champions—seemed as good as done.
But that is why they play the games. The Pens beat the Caps 5-2 in Game 5 in Washington and went back to Pittsburgh with momentum. In Game 6, Mario Lemieux would show the world why he was the greatest player in the game at the time as he scored two goals, added three assists and the Pens evened the series with a rousing 6-4 win.
Heading back to Washington for Game 7, the ghosts of past playoff failures weighed heavily on the shoulders of the Caps. Haunted by lingering memories of such collapses as the Easter Epic the Caps folded badly under the pressure of another playoff collapse.
Lemieux would score a goal and add an assist and a very young Jaromir Jagr tacked on another goal as the Pens completed the stunning comeback with a 3-1 win in D.C.
The Penguins would go on to repeat as Stanley Cup champions and the Caps were left to try and figure out how things had unraveled so badly, so quickly. In the end though, the Caps would have to just accept the fact that despite the 3-1 series lead, the better team eventually prevailed.
Regardless, this classic seven-game series is what truly got this rivalry going.
Historically, the Caps have taken it on the chin whenever they have faced the Penguins in the playoffs—except once.
Two years after the Caps collapse in the 1992 playoffs, the Caps and Pens would meet again in the first round of the 1994 playoffs. This time though, the Caps would not be denied.
Unlike the matchup two years earlier, the 1994 playoff series started off in Pittsburgh. The teams would split the first two games in Pittsburgh and then the series would shift to D.C.
In Game 3, Don Beaupre would shut out the Pens 2-0. In Game 4, Beaupre and the Caps would again shut down the Pens and after a 4-1 win the Caps, for the second series in a row, held a 3-1 series lead.
When the Pens prevailed 3-2 in Game 5, another collapse seemed to be in the making. But in Game 6, six different Caps would score a goal. Not even Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr could rescue the Pens this time around. Lemieux's goal with just over nine minutes left pulled the Pens to within 5-3. But an empty netter by Michal Pivonka put an end to the drama and gave the Caps the series in six games.
The Capitals would go on to basically become cannon fodder for the eventual champion New York Rangers but, for one series anyway, the Caps got the best of the Penguins. For the Pens, the loss to the Caps pretty much was the end of their dynasty, the beginning of which had begun with the stunning loss to the New York Islanders the year before.
But the two teams were not done with each other. Not by a long shot.
The Capitals vs.Penguins rivalry had seen so much already. But in reality, we had not seen anything yet. It is one thing to blow a 3-1 series lead once. But to do it twice to the same team, and then follow that up by blowing a 2-0 series lead yet again against the same team—unfathomable.
Turn away now, Caps fans. This is ugly, ugly stuff.
Yes, I know these are really two moments and not one. But if you are an NHL history fan, it is almost impossible to talk about the Caps 1995 collapse against the Pens and not talk about the 1996 failure, or vice versa.
Having exercised the demons of 1992 the previous season, the Caps and Pens squared off again in the opening round of the 1995 playoffs. Like the previous year, the teams split the first two games in Pittsburgh. Like the previous season, the Caps then went on to win the next two games in D.C., both of them 6-2 thrashings of the Pens. Just like the season before, the Pens would win Game 5 in Pittsburgh to force a Game 6 in Washington.
But this time around, the Pens would absolutely crush the Caps 7-1 in Game 6. Jaromir Jagr, Luc Robitaille and Tomas Sandstrom each scored two goals and the momentum of the series was squarely with Pittsburgh.
In Game 7, Ken Wregget would stop 33 shots and for the second time in three years the Penguins rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Caps. The defeat was almost mind-numbing for the Caps, especially since the Pens did not have the services of Mario Lemieux for the series.
The Penguins would be overwhelmed by the eventual champion New Jersey Devils in the conference semi-finals but another chapter in this storied rivalry had just been written.
For an encore though, the teams would lock up again in the first round of the 1996 playoffs. Once again, the series would begin in Pittsburgh. This time though, the Caps would win the first two games in the Steel City. The Penguins would prevail in D.C. in Game 3 and this set the stage for one of the greatest games in NHL playoff history.
Game 4 of the 1996 Caps vs. Penguins series was an epic in every sense of the word. It was as tense a hockey game as you can possibly imagine. But it was all about Petr Nedved. Nedved scored to tie the game up and then things got interesting. Ken Wregget stopped Joe Juneau on a penalty shot in OT and set the stage for more drama later on.
At the 19:15 mark of the fourth overtime, Nedved would strike again ending the fifth longest overtime game in NHL playoff history and evening the series up.
Game 5 would not be remembered so much for the Pens 4-1 win but for the series of brawls at the end of the game that saw the Pens Alek Stojanov leave bloodied and saw the coaches for both teams nearly engage in a brawl of their own.
In Game 6, goals from Jagr, Ron Francis and Mario Lemieux, who had returned to the Pens lineup, sealed the deal and the Pens had once again rallied from two games down in the series to defeat the Caps.
The Penguins would be upset in seven games by the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference finals. But as for their rivalry with the Caps, the back to back comebacks in 1995 and 1996 tilted the advantage in the rivalry squarely in Pittsburgh's favor.
The 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals between the Penguins and Capitals remains one of the greatest playoff series in NHL history. From the standpoint of this amazing rivalry, this series represented the resumption of a familiar refrain, namely the Caps dominating early in the series but not being able to close the deal.
Ever since they were drafted No. 1 overall in consecutive seasons, Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were on a collision course. They were the faces of the NHL, the present of the NHL in the wake of the recovery from the 2004-2005 lockout and the future of the league. With the NHL surging in popularity, all it was going to take was a matchup between the league's marquee players to allow the NHL to reach all new heights.
It almost happened in 2008 but the Caps overtime loss in Game 7 against the Philadelphia Flyers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals prevented the mega matchup from taking place.
The following season though, the stars would align. The Caps rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to upend the New York Rangers and when the Carolina Hurricanes scored two goals in the final 90 seconds to beat the New Jersey Devils in Game 7, one of the most anticipated playoff series in NHL history was finally a done deal. The two teams would not disappoint.
Five of the first six games were decided by just one goal. Three of the games went into overtime. The highlight of all of this was Game 2 where Ovechkin and Crosby each scored hat tricks. The Caps would prevail 4-3 to take a 2-0 series lead and, in an unsettling way, things felt like the '90s all over again.
When the Pens won Game 3 in overtime and then won Game 4 by the score of 5-3, fans everywhere had to feel like they had just jumped into a flying Delorean and had gone back to 1995. The Pens would win Game 5 in overtime and headed home to, presumably, put the series away.
But Dave Steckel would score in overtime of Game 6 and, suddenly, the Caps had the momentum heading home for what promised to be one of the all-time great Game 7s in the history of the game.
It never worked out that way though. Marc-Andre Fleury stoned Ovechkin on a breakaway attempt early in Game 7 and goals by Crosby and Craig Adams just eight seconds apart in the first period gave the Pens a lead they would not relinquish.
The Penguins would win Game 7 by the final count of 6-2 and, yet again, the Pens got the best of the Caps in a playoff series. Pittsburgh would go on to win it's first Stanley Cup since 1992. The Caps have never quite been the same.
The teams have not met in the playoffs again since the epic 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals and the way things are going right now, it does not look like we will get a rematch of this classic anytime soon.
But for a couple of weeks in the spring of 2009, the Capitals and Penguins reminded all of us just how great a rivalry this really is.
The 2011 Winter Classic between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins was played at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, home of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
As far as hockey games go, it was not the greatest game you will ever see. The intensity level between the two teams was off the charts, no doubt about that. Eric Fehr's two goals were enough to give the Caps a 3-1 win that they desperately needed at the time. But when compared to some of the other games we have discussed in this article so far, the 2011 Winter Classic could be called a very good but not quite great hockey game.
What made the 2011 Winter Classic worthy of being on this list though is how this Winter Classic, more so than any of the others, really transformed the game and made it more popular than many thought was possible. It also made the Winter Classic widely accepted as a major sporting event.
The Caps had dominated the NHL during the 2009-2010 regular season only to suffer a crushing upset at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens in the playoffs. The Pens had similarly suffered a stunning upset loss to those very same Canadiens in the playoffs.
The ensuing regular season, the Caps struggled to be a more defensive and responsible team but they were still winning. The matchup between Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby was hyped to the max.
But HBO took things to a whole new level. Their 24/7 series took an in-depth look at the game, as well as the rivalry between the teams and Ovechkin and Crosby, in a way that had not been attempted before. It was a critical success and fans loved it. HBO's unique perspective on each teams season heading into the Winter Classic was a fresh new perspective that humanized the teams and made the game more appealing to a wider range of viewers.
The popularity of the Winter Classic soared. The 2011 contest between the Caps and Pens is still the most watched of the five games played so far. It was viewed by 4.57 million people.
The game itself had a lasting impact—and nearly a disastrous result. A hit by Dave Steckel on Sidney Crosby knocked the Pens' captain for a loop. Four days later, Crosby took another shot to the head from the Tampa Bay Lightning's Victor Hedman.
Crosby would miss the rest of the season with concussion-syndrome like symptoms. He would miss the first 20 games of the 2011-2012 season as well. Crosby would play in eight games then have a recurrence of his symptoms. He would not return to the ice until March 15, 2012. Crosby has remained healthy since this time—but Pens fans have every reason to be worried that their captain might just be a hit away from the end of his career.
Still, the 2011 Winter Classic between the Caps and Penguins was a huge moment not just for its place in the great moments in this rivalry, but because of how that one game really transformed the NHL as we know it today.