The history between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals is long and brutal, if you’re a Caps fan.
The Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals have met 279 times total, not including Oct. 11’s tilt (a 3-2 Penguins victory). The Penguins have the advantage all time in the regular season (106-95-16) and the postseason (38-24).
Since entering the league in the 1974-75 season, the Capitals have qualified for the postseason 27 times. Of those seasons, the Capitals have been eliminated by the Penguins nine times. That means that one third of the Capitals’ postseason exits have been at the hands of the Penguins.
They have only beaten the Pens in the playoffs once, in 1993-94. The Caps went on that year to lose in the conference semifinals to the New York Rangers.
The question is this: why can’t the Capitals—an ostensibly good team—figure out how to beat the Penguins? Is it a matter of skill? Psychological? A combination of both?
I’m sure the Caps would like to know.
How the Skills Match Up
The Capitals have no lack of skill. They have qualified for the playoffs nearly every year since they drafted Alex Ovechkin first overall in 2004. Other talented forwards on their current roster include Nicklas Backstrom, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie. Consistent scorer John Carlson leads the blueline, and Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby minds the net.
Yet all of this skill in the regular season has been for naught when facing the Penguins in the postseason. Not that these players have not performed well. In the playoffs last year, Backstrom and Oshie led the team in scoring, while Holtby posted a .909 save percentage.
The Capitals have had a weak defense for years. They have made moves to try and remedy this, acquiring Kevin Shattenkirk at the deadline last season and signing former Penguins Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen. These moves are commendable, and these blueliners are not bad players. But the Capitals still fail to realize that what their defense lacks most is speed—and this lack of speed has cost them dearly against the Pens.
The President’s Trophy Curse
It is well-known in hockey that teams that accrue many Presidents’ Trophies are rarely Stanley Cup winners. There’s no scientific evidence to back this up, of course, but it’s worth noting that the Caps have won the Presidents’ Trophy three times and the Stanley Cup zero times. (The Penguins, by the way, have won the Presidents’ Trophy once and the Stanley Cup five times.)
What makes a playoff team? The Capitals just recently had players like Justin “Mr. Game 7” Williams on their roster. Oshie has been one of the Caps’ most consistent playoff performers. And yet even those players have been unable to reverse the Caps’ trend of early playoff exits to the Penguins.
Because the Capitals are not a playoff team. They dominate the regular season; they have a plethora of division championship and Presidents’ Trophy banners. But once the regular season ends, so does the Caps’ success—especially against the Penguins.
The Penguins know the difference between regular season and playoff hockey. Under head coach Dan Bylsma, the Pens thrived in the regular season but failed in the postseason. Now, with Mike Sullivan, the Penguins are a true postseason team. The Capitals, however, have yet to realize that difference.