Pittsburgh and Washington.
, Evgeni Malkin
and Marc-Andre Fleury
versus Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom.
The league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner battling the second-best squad (tied) in the Eastern conference.
No matter how you slice it and dice it, the storylines which surround a Penguins-Capitals affair make it must-see TV for hockey fans. Tuesday night will be no exception as the Penguins host the Capitals in the fourth and final installment of the 2009-10 season series before a nationally televised audience at 7:30 p.m. on Versus.
With three games remaining on their docket and home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs already locked up, the Capitals have far less to play for than the Penguins, who are currently locked in a neck-and-neck battle with the New Jersey Devils for the Atlantic Division title. Both division rivals enter Tuesday with 97 points and 45 victories, but the Devils have a leg up in the race after winning the season series.
Much like the thrilling seven-game series between Pittsburgh and Washington during last season’s Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, won by the Penguins, the first three regular-season contests have more than matched the hype.
Washington has won each, but the final results do not tell the whole story of how the Penguins have fared against the Capitals.
“I guess in terms of us approaching the game, we approach it as a big game against a good opponent and a test for us. It’s a test to keep our momentum going with how we are playing and a test for us to get better playing a 60-minute Pittsburgh Penguin hockey game.” - Dan Bylsma
While Washington did control the better of the play and walked away with a 6-3 victory in the only previous meeting this season at Mellon Arena back on Jan. 21, the last two games at Verizon Center have been anything but a cakewalk for the Capitals.
“The first game was not good against them in our building but the last two games are what you would expect against a very good team with two of them being decided after regulation,” head coach Dan Bylsma said.
On Feb. 7 the Penguins opened up a 4-1 second-period lead on the Capitals following a pair of tallies by Crosby and Jordan Staal
. However, an Ovechkin hat trick was followed by Mike Knuble banging home a rebound on an overtime power play to allow the Capitals to complete a 5-4 comeback.
The final score might have been disappointing, but the Penguins deserve major kudos that afternoon for dominating the play as often as they did.
Pittsburgh did not arrive in the nation’s capital until 2:15 a.m. – roughly 10 hours prior to the noon puck drop – after a huge snowstorm along the east coast forced the team to divert to Newark, N.J. from Montreal, resulting in a five-hour bus ride into Washington after playing an afternoon game against the Canadiens the day before.
The Penguins also played well against the Capitals on March 24, dominating the Capitals through the first two periods to take a 2-1 lead into the final 20 minutes. Washington rebounded to go up 3-2, but the Penguins displayed some impressive mental toughness to send the game to an extra session when Staal tallied with 3:06 remaining in regulation.
Knuble might have earned the extra point for Washington with a game-deciding goal in the shootout, but the Penguins proved they could skate with the league’s highest-scoring outfit.
“I guess I would say we have played some good hockey games against the Capitals – especially the first one in their building,” Bylsma said. “I think we played very well for 36 minutes. Last game was a good test and a battle where we had to come back and do it against a very good team in the third period after having surrendered a lead. I am not discouraged by how we have played the Capitals at this point.”
Neither are Bylsma’s players. Armed with a playoff-tested roster consisting of 18 members from last season’s Stanley Cup championship squad, the Penguins are smart enough to realize what happens against the Capitals in the regular season has no bearing on how the team will perform during the postseason, even in a potential rematch with the Capitals.
Last season the Capitals won three of the four regular season meetings between the Pittsburgh and Washington before the Penguins exacted revenge when it counted the most.
“I said it before – you can lose 10 times against a team going into the playoffs, and I honestly don’t think that it changes anything,” Crosby said. “Whether you’re on the right side of it or the wrong side of it – whether you’ve won six against a team or lost all six, whether you’ve won all four or lost all four – I’m honestly not lying when I say that it doesn’t matter in the playoffs. Mentally, it’s good for sure if you can beat a team, but it means absolutely nothing when you get to the playoffs. It really doesn’t.”
“I can speak for myself that it doesn’t mean anything,” Ruslan Fedotenko said. “I have been in the league for a while. We swept Buffalo in the regular season one year (with Tampa Bay) and then they beat us in the playoffs, 4-1.”
Don’t take that the wrong way. The Penguins absolutely want to take home the two points against the Capitals on Tuesday night. That is as important as anything come this point in the season. But at the same time, they know what’s really important over the course of the next four games.
“I guess in terms of us approaching the game, we approach it as a big game against a good opponent and a test for us,” Bylsma said. “It’s a test to keep our momentum going with how we are playing and a test for us to get better playing a 60-minute Pittsburgh Penguin hockey game.”
“As long as you get to the peak of your game by the end of the regular season and carry that into the playoffs, that is what is important,” Fedotenko said. “Whatever your record is before that doesn’t matter. It is what you do in the playoffs.”