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Gajtka: Capitals Winning Stanley Cup Could Be Best Thing For Penguins

If you believe that legitimate competition brings out the best, then you have to be a little intrigued.

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Time for all of us to face reality.

The Washington Capitals, who had never previously won more than 12 games in one spring in 44 years of existence, who hadn’t advanced out of the second round in the past decade despite icing three Presidents’ Trophy teams, are more likely than not to lift the Stanley Cup soon.

A victory in Game 4 on Monday night at Capital One Arena in Washington would all but assure Alex Ovechkin‘s long-awaited chance to shake Gary Bettman‘s hand at center ice, but even a Vegas Golden Knights win Monday sets the stage for a championship-round best-of-three.

I think the Capitals would happily accept that fate, whereas most Penguins fans are probably already shuddering at the thought of the denizens of D.C. partying through a muggy June night in the near future.

Not to make everything about the Penguins as one of the league’s longest-tenured franchises climbs to the precipice of history, but this is Pittsburgh Hockey Now, after all. And I can’t help but opine that a Capitals Cup might just be the best thing for the Penguins and their loyal followers.

Before you turn off your phone or slam your laptop closed, hear me out.

There might not be consensus on this, but for a while I felt the Capitals surpassed the Flyers as the Penguins’ chief rival. Sure, the long-boiling hatred of Philadelphia is baked into any Pittsburgh hockey fan’s psyche from childhood, but practically speaking Washington was the team that seemed most likely to thwart the Sidney CrosbyEvgeni Malkin Penguins in their quest to bring more titles to a fanbase that had already experienced two.

When the Penguins trounced the Flyers in the 2008 Eastern Conference final, then survived an epic seven-game series against the Capitals the next year en route to a Cup, that assessment seemed sound. But then Pittsburgh and Washington burned out early in 2010, the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field was a dud and both franchises started to seem adrift.

The playoff collisions of the past three years put events back on their expected tracks, but with the Pens burning through the Caps in consecutive championship runs, this feud became a rivalry for one side only, the Washington side.

I’ll spare you the lame jokes about bugs and windshields, but I’d bet that if you took a poll of Penguins fans — or even the actual players — before the 2018 playoffs, you would’ve seen the Flyers listed as the opponent that most gets the blood boiling and brain percolating.

And that’s why the Capitals winning it all could be just what this hockey town needs.

Just drawing from my personal perspective, the drive for a three-peat didn’t seem to stimulate the regional imagination as much as I anticipated. Instead of savoring every moment, most fans seemed to want to skip to the end of the book. Game 30 of 82 seems a lot less significant when the team you follow has just climbed the mountain twice in a row.

There should be much less of that get-it-over-with attitude in 2018-19 regardless of whether Vegas or Washington comes out on top. Falling short of expressed goals will do that naturally. But if the Capitals are the defending champs come October, that’ll spice things up a bit, no? And should there be any doubt the Penguins would be compelled by the NHL to travel to D.C. for that hypothetical banner-raising?

If Washington gets it done, there will be still be an air of superiority around here with regards to the Capitals, but that hierarchy loses some of its edge when the supposedly inferior team has won it all more recently than the big brother. The two sides wouldn’t be even by any stretch — the Cup count in this generation would still favor the Penguins by two — but the no-title stigma surrounding the Caps would vaporize.

You might disagree with me, but I think that would be outstanding for a battle I always enjoyed more for the actual hockey than Penguins-Flyers. I have to admit that, even from the media perspective, that excitement lost some juice when the Penguins kept crushing the Capitals’ dreams.

Washington’s outlasting of Pittsburgh in the second round this year already changed that dynamic, but a Caps championship parade down Pennsylvania Avenue — actually, who knows where a D.C. title parade goes? — would finally give the red-rockers something to crow about.

If you’re a believer in the idea that legitimate competition brings out the best in all involved parties, then you at least have to be intrigued about how the new reality could lift the Penguins.

And, before you ask, you don’t have to be excited about the thought of Tom Wilson greasing up Lord Stanley.

On second thought … I take it all back. Go Vegas.

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A lifelong hockey addict, Matt has been fortunate enough to make his career in his sport of choice, working in high school, juniors, college and the pros in various multimedia roles. Previous to joining PHN, Matt was a credentialed Penguins/NHL beat reporter for the past two seasons, including coverage of the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. He signed on with PHN in Feb. 2018 as co-owner, contributing commentary and analysis in various forms.

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