If we can look past all the platitudes and clichés the Washington Capitals had spouted over the years of playoff vanquishment at the hands of the Penguins, most of us on the outside figured there was a some sort of mental stumbling block involved, too.
Actually, come to think of it, some of the Capitals admitted to psychological difficulties following last year’s seven-game loss to the Penguins, marking the second straight year Sidney Crosby and Co. knocked off their Presidents’ Trophy-winning rivals.
For Washington, the struggle was real and it was multifaceted.
Based upon some recent reporting by Sportsnet’s Elliotte Friedman, we have further confirmation of that fact, with the most interesting comment coming from former Penguin Matt Niskanen. Per Niskanen, Capitals coach Barry Trotz had some pointed words late in a regular season that was the team’s worst since 2014-15.
“It was February or March, I can’t remember exactly when,” Niskanen told Friedman. “But he told us the reason we always lose to Pittsburgh is because we let little guys like Conor Sheary and Bryan Rust win battles against us. I don’t know if that stayed with anyone else, but it sure stuck with me.”
That’s quite the statement to make public, and probably something that wouldn’t have come out if the Capitals had lost to the Penguins in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third consecutive year. But it’s still instructive how much the specter of the back-to-back champions affected Washington’s psyche and process, even when there was no guarantee the two teams would collide in the spring again.
Niskanen’s candid recall of Trotz’s advice is also a testament to how pesky the Penguins’ forecheckers have been since Mike Sullivan let them loose. Although I’m not sure I’d put the 5-foot-11, 195-pound Rust in the same category as the 5-8, 175-pound Sheary, when the Penguins are at their best, they’re putting pucks into uncomfortable areas and letting their tenacious wingers create havoc.
Also in Friedman’s insightful ’31 Thoughts’ column, former Capitals media relations chief Nate Ewell equated Washington’s long-awaited defeat of the Penguins to the Red Sox’ historic American League Championship Series win over the rival Yankees in 2004. There was no three-games-to-none comeback for the Capitals, but apparently the result was just as cathartic.
Of course, all you had to do was look at Alex Ovechkin‘s face after Evgeny Kuznestov‘s series-clincher at PPG Paints Arena to know how much that meant to the Capitals’ captain. There were still eight wins to get at that point, but let history say the Pittsburgh hurdle was just as significant as the Final victory over the Vegas Golden Knights.