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Penguins, Capitals pick up where they left off from playoffs

Pittsburgh gets best of Washington again

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulitti / NHL.com Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Five months and one day had passed since the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals played at Capital One Arena on May 10 and, though nothing that happened Wednesday was going to change what happened then, it served as reminder of the past and likely future of this rivalry.

As they did in the Eastern Conference Second Round last season, the Penguins got the best of the Capitals, scoring three power-play goals before holding on for a 3-2 victory. The Capitals held the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions' big guns -- Sidney Crosby (one assist), Evgeni Malkin (no points) and Phil Kessel (no points) -- in check for the most part, but took six penalties and gave up power-play goals to Kris Letang, Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary.

 

[RELATED: Penguins hold on to beat Capitals]

 

It was another early-season lesson for the Capitals, who have been shorthanded 20 times in going 2-1-1 in their first four games. They'll face the Penguins three more times during the regular season; on Nov. 10 in Washington, and Feb. 2 and April 1 in Pittsburgh, and likely will run into them again in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Penguins, also 2-1-1, haven't played their best yet either, but the Capitals recognize that they remain the team to beat.

Video: PIT@WSH: Hornqvist jams in PPG in season debut

"Until somebody else wins it, that's what I always say," Capitals defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Until somebody else knocks them off, that's kind of the measuring stick."

The Capitals failed to measure up against the Penguins in the playoffs the past two seasons despite coming in as Presidents' Trophy winners each time. They were eliminated in overtime of Game 6 of the second round in 2016 and lost 2-0 at home in Game 7 of the second round last season.

Watching the Penguins go on to win the Stanley Cup each time didn't make the Capitals' long summers any easier. It was difficult for them not to think about that Wednesday.

"When you're the losing team, I think you always think about it," Capitals right wing T.J. Oshie said. "It's always in the back of your mind."

Video: PIT@WSH: Letang backhands home PPG from in front

Capitals coach Barry Trotz stated it more strongly Wednesday morning when asked if there was any more significance facing the Penguins because they eliminated the Capitals from the playoffs each of the past two seasons.

"No, just hatred," Trotz said. "You hate the guys that bumped you out and all the credit to the Penguins. They've been the standard for the last two seasons and we've had to try to get by them and we have not."

The loss last season was particularly painful for the Capitals because they thought they had their best team and best chance to win the Stanley Cup in the Alex Ovechkin era, which began in 2005-06. But they again failed to get beyond the second round.

Video: PIT@WSH: Ovechkin jams home Djoos' cross-crease feed

They've yet to come up with an answer for what went wrong in Game 7, when they faded after a decent start and provided little pushback in the third period after Hornqvist's goal gave the Penguins 2-0 lead.

The dark cloud from that defeat hung over the Capitals throughout a summer of key departures that included forwards Justin Williams and Marcus Johansson, and defensemen Karl Alzner, Kevin Shattenkirk and Nate Schmidt. It remained when training camp began.

It wasn't until their 2017-18 season opener against the Ottawa Senators on Oct. 5 that they snapped out of it. Three third-period goals from Ovechkin helped them rally from 3-1 and pull out a 5-4 shootout victory.

"Until the last period of Game 7, in our minds we were going to the Stanley Cup [Final] and we were going to win it," Oshie said. "So the next time you get out and the [preseason] games points-wise don't really matter, I think it took us a little longer to get that focus back. But I think Game 1 [at Ottawa], it came back pretty quick. Ovi did a good job of helping that along for us."

Ovechkin has a remarkable eight goals in the Capitals' first four games, including one that pulled them within 3-2 with 7:09 remaining on Wednesday. But the Capitals have some obvious holes, particularly on defense.

Christian Djoos had a goal and an assist in his NHL debut Wednesday, but it remains to be seen if at 6-feet, 169 pounds he can hold up to the League's physical grind or play well enough in his own end.

The Penguins, who have rebounded with consecutive wins since a 10-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 5, have holes to fill too. They probably will look to upgrade their bottom two lines, particularly third-line center.

Video: PIT@WSH: Djoos scores a goal in his NHL debut

So there's a decent chance the Penguins and Capitals will look at least a little different by the time the playoffs roll around. Regardless, the Capitals know if they are going to win the Stanley Cup for the first time in their history, they'll probably need to go through the Penguins.

"I saw [Penguins coach Mike Sullivan's] interview at the White House [Tuesday], and he said now they're focusing on three [in a row]," Trotz said. "So, good on them. We're focusing on hopefully not letting them have three [but] so is the rest of the League, though. There's 30 other teams that are on the same focus."

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