For the Washington Capitals and their fans, the Pittsburgh Penguins represent a house of horrors.
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.
Included in this was the four-overtime defeat in Game 4 of the 1996 playoffs. Yes, for those keeping track, that makes two four-overtime games that the Caps have lost in their tortured history.
More than a decade later, though, the teams would match up again. Unfortunately for the Caps, time did not make the Penguins any less devastating to their plans for success.
The 2009 Eastern Conference Semifinals between the Penguins and Capitals remains one of the greatest playoff series in NHL history. But just as in years past, the Caps dominated early in the series but could not close the deal.
Ever since they were drafted No. 1 overall in consecutive seasons, Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby were on a collision course. They were the faces of the NHL, the present 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.
In the 2009 playoffs, 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, when 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 head 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 NHL history.
It never worked out that way, though. What was supposed to be an instant classic turned into an epic blowout. 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 Caps wilted under the pressure of a game of this magnitude. With a trip to the Eastern Conference Final within their grasp, the Caps simply did not even show up.
The Penguins would win Game 7 by the final count of 6-2 and, yet again, would get the best of the Caps in a playoff series. Pittsburgh would go on to win its 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, but they are both divisional rivals now in the new Metropolitan Division.
On November 20, the two teams met as divisional rivals for the first time since 1993 and the Pens blanked the Caps 4-0. It was the fifth straight time the Penguins have beaten the Caps.
Whether the Caps can exorcise any of these lingering demons in the months and years to come remains to be seen. They certainly did not get off to a good start the other night.