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‘Biggest Game of the Year,’ What Does Penguins vs. Capitals Mean?



Pittsburgh Penguins game, Kris Letang, Anthony Mantha

WASHINGTON, D.C.  — The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have fought hockey battles and wars. It seems one is always in the other’s way, but this time, both are desperately scrapping for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

With seven games left in this arduous season, three points separate the Penguins and Washington. Both are old teams trying to incorporate youth for the next era of their franchise while still relying on the Hall-of-Fame stars who’ve carried the crest for nearly 20 years.

There are few rivalries like it, and on Thursday, it’s a battle for a playoff spot. If the Penguins win in regulation, they would trail Washington for the final wild-card spot by one point.


“I mean, it’s really the biggest game of the year for so many reasons,” Rickard Rakell said. “They beat us last game (March 6, 6-0), the standings, the amount of games we have left, this is the team we’re chasing.”

There are other teams involved in the fight for a playoff spot. The Philadelphia Flyers. Detroit Red Wings. New York Islanders. All have history and some beef with each other stemming from the past, but none quite like the Penguins and Washington.

For the record, the Flyers remain the easier team to catch. Their slumping play and proximity to the Penguins in the standings make them the lower-hanging fruit. The Penguins trail Philadelphia by four points with one game in hand, but they do not have any head-to-head matchups remaining.

The Penguins also trail the Red Wings by three points with a head-to-head matchup.

However, all scenarios involve the Penguins winning. So, they might as well beat their most hated rival.

The teams suffered stitches and injuries in the early 1990s. Almost exclusively, the Penguins won those battles, leading to two Stanley Cups (1991, 1992). The wars between Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin began when the Penguins were more competitive in the 2006-07 season.

This era of the war included the Penguins winning three Stanley Cups, going through Washington each time. In 2016, they were the top two seeds in the Eastern Conference, and in 2017, they were the two best teams in the NHL.

In fact, the Penguins also won most of those important battles, including Game 7 of the 2017 Round Two series, until Washington finally broke through by ending the Penguins’ two-year reign as Stanley Cup champions with a Round Two win in 2018.

Those dirty birds.

“It’s always a rivalry. And we seem to find a way to play each other when it means the most, too. Huge game for us,” Marcus Pettersson said. “The last two games against them, we’re not happy at all with how (they) went. So we can find a little chip on our shoulders in that way, too.”

Washington also added salt to the Jake Guentzel-trade wound. The Penguins faced Washington on March 6, the night president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas was finalizing the Guentzel trade to Carolina. Washington crushed the disinterested Penguins 6-0 at PPG Paints Arena.

It is the latest and perhaps last great chapter of the rivalry for some time on Thursday at the Capital One Center. Both the Penguins and Capitals are due for a hefty roster renewal. Sidney Crosby is 36. Alex Ovechkin 38. The other stalwarts aren’t getting younger, either. Penguins Kris Letang, Evgeni Malkin, and the Capitals’ T.J. Oshie and John Carlson are all in their mid-30s.

“I think we just gotta keep playing, trying to win games. I think we have a lot of guys in here who have seen a lot of things in this league,” said Penguins winger Bryan Rust. “And I think we just got to take this as a very important game and kind of get mentally dialed in. But it is a game that we’ve played a whole lot of times.”

While a Penguins’ win puts them within one point, a Washington win moves them to five points ahead with six games to go, and Washington has played one fewer game. The Penguins could still catch the Flyers, whom they trail by four points with a game in hand, but every point is crucial with so few left to grab.

“It’s a four-point game. It’s a team we want to catch,” Reilly Smith said. “So I mean, it’s that simple. It really is for us. We know the situation we’re in.”

So, one last bare-knuckled throwdown with the playoffs on the line?