When the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals played against each other on Nov. 16, they were trying to fight through an early-season malaise while managing to win their share of games.
The Capitals won 7-1 that night at Verizon Center, demonstrating they had another level they could reach when challenged. It was a level they often reached on their way to winning the Presidents' Trophy last season but rarely got to during the first two months of this season.
It was similar for the Penguins. Although they never experienced a full-blown Stanley Cup hangover, they also couldn't seem to consistently play their best 60-minute game until the calendar turned to December.
Bur each team is running on all cylinders entering their Wednesday Night Rivalry game at Verizon Center (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA Sports, NHL.TV).
The Penguins (26-8-5) are 13-1-2 in their past 16 games and are in second place in the highly competitive Metropolitan Division with 57 points. The Capitals (26-9-5) also have 57 points but have played one more game than the Penguins. They are 13-2-3 in their past 18 games.
The Penguins' lone regulation loss since November ended was a 7-1 defeat at Nationwide Arena on Dec. 22 that was victory No. 11 during the first-place Columbus Blue Jackets' 16-game winning streak. Pittsburgh has won five in a row since.
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The Capitals ended the Blue Jackets streak with a 5-0 win on Jan. 5 and have replaced them as the Metropolitan Division's hottest team with six consecutive victories.
Something will have to give on Wednesday.
For the Capitals, the game continues a stretch when they play seven of 13 against Metropolitan Division opponents, including a rematch with the Penguins at PPG Paints Arena on Monday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports, ROOT, NHL.TV). The Capitals are a mediocre 6-5-4 within the Metropolitan Division but showed again in their victory against the Blue Jackets what they're capable of when focused.
They've seemed content with flying under the radar in the Metropolitan Division as compared to the Blue Jackets, the Penguins and the New York Rangers, who are 28-13-1 and also have 57 points but have played two more games than Washington and three more than Pittsburgh. But if the Capitals want to have home-ice advantage at the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, they'll need to play better within what has been the toughest division in the NHL.
Despite going 18-2-1 in their past 21 games, the Blue Jackets' lead over the Penguins, Capitals and Rangers was three points prior to facing the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday. With the quality of play being so high, the margin for error figures to be small as the teams push each other in the second half of the season.
"When you're in a division that had the Stanley Cup champion and the Presidents' Trophy winner last year, the teams around get better," Capitals coach Barry Trotz said last month. "I was in Nashville for a long time when [the Predators] were an expansion team, and we got to play the Detroit Red Wings when they were on the top of the League for a long time. They just made us better. The competition made us better.
"I think that's what's happened in the Metro Division. The top teams have all raised the level of the rest of the division and the rest of the division is gearing up for the competition. It's going to be a war to get out of this division if you can get into the playoffs."
If the playoff started now, the Penguins and the Capitals would go head-to-head in the first round. Although half of the regular season is left, it continues to feel inevitable that these rivals will run into each other at some point in the postseason.
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The Penguins defeated the Capitals in six games in the Eastern Conference Second Round last spring and went on to win the Stanley Cup. Judging by the way they pushed the Penguins at times in that series, the Capitals might have been the second-best team in the League.
But that was no consolation after they failed again to get past the second round.
As the reigning champions, the Penguins remain the team to beat. They continue to be led by Sidney Crosby, who has fed off his roll from the second half of last season and leads the NHL with 26 goals.
Evgeni Malkin is also having a strong season with 43 points (16 goals, 27 assists), leaving him one point behind Crosby for the Penguins lead. Phil Kessel has 39 points (13 goals, 26 assists).
Any game between the Penguins and Capitals involves the usual Crosby vs. Alex Ovechkin subplot. Ovechkin, who has 19 goals and 33 points this season, needs one point to reach 1,000, a milestone 83 players in NHL history have reached. Crosby needs 18 points to get to 1,000.
No doubt, Ovechkin would love to get to 1,000 in a win against Crosby and the Penguins. But as is often the case, these games are about more than the two superstar captains.
The game in Pittsburgh on Monday is the last one scheduled between the Penguins and the Capitals this season. Unless, of course, destiny has them playing each other again in the playoffs.