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Deja vu in Pens' Game 1 victory

by Sam Kasan @PensInsideScoop / Pittsburgh Penguins

WASHINGTON, D.C. - In most normal circumstances, winning the first game of a playoff series isn't a monumental moment.

Don't get me wrong. Obviously it's better to be ahead 1-0 in a series than behind.

But the opening game of a series is rarely a pinnacle occasion, not when most series typically require six or seven games to complete. There's a lot of hockey left to play. Much remains to be determined.

But Pittsburgh's 3-2 Game 1 victory against Washington at Capital One Arena on Thursday night to take a 1-0 Second Round series lead wasn't a typical Game 1.

It's only one win, but Thursday's win for the Pens felt bigger than just one win.

The Pens-Caps rivalry is more about psychological warfare, especially with this being the third installment in the previous three years.

For all the talk on both sides of the past being the past, of this being a completely new series, of both teams having a clean slate, of turning the page, there's no denying that both teams can still hear the echoes of the past two years. Or possibly the past 27 years for that matter.

Since 1991, the Pens and Caps have squared off 10 times. Pittsburgh has come out victorious in nine of those showdowns. Regardless of which team had the more talented players, regardless of which team was the seeded higher, regardless of era - whether it was 1991 or 2001 or 2017 - the Pens have come out on top.

The Caps set out to prove that this year would be different. And it took them all of 17 seconds to drill home that point as Evgeny Kuznetsov scored the game's opening goal before many fans had even taken their seats.

Goaltender Braden Holtby, who has been haunted by bad performances against the Pens in the past, was brilliant in the opening two periods. He stopped all 17 shots against with several being of the remarkable variety.

The Caps' faithful were riding high 28 seconds into the third period when captain Alex Ovechkin beat Pens goalie Matt Murray with a perfect, top-corner snipe to give Washington a 2-0 lead.

And then history intervened.

It seemed an innocuous play. The Pens had the puck in the offensive zone and defenseman Justin Schultz sent a harmless wrist shot toward the net from 80 feet away. But along the way, the puck struck the stick of winger Patric Hornqvist, changed direction and sneaked by Holtby to give the Pens their first goal of the game.

And the ghosts of the past resurrected.

An emboldened traveling fan base erupted with a cacophonous "Let's go Pens!" chant in hostile territory. The home crowd could only bemoan and await their fate.

Minutes later Jake Guentzel somehow threaded a pass from the blue line through the stick of Alex Ovechkin and onto the stick of Sidney Crosby in the opposite circle. Crosby snapped home his seventh goal of the playoffs through Holtby's five-hole to tie the game.

The Pens players gathered in jubilation. Everyone in the building knew what was coming next. It took a mere 88 seconds to happen.

Pittsburgh gained its first lead of the game, which it would never relinquish, after Guentzel re-directed a Crosby shot into the smallest of holes between Holtby and the post.

Holtby was unbeatable in the first two periods. Then Pittsburgh scored on three of its next four shots in a 4:49-minute span. The Caps cracked the door open for Pittsburgh, and the Pens kicked the door wide open.

The remaining 12:12 of game time felt like a formality. Washington certainly did not go quietly, recording 18 shots in the third period. Murray was forced to make several spectacular stops of his own, including a split, blocker save on Brett Connolly.

The Pens shut things down and walked away with a 1-0 series lead. And they did it without center Evgeni Malkin, the team's leading scoring and MVP in the regular season.

The Caps had it all. They had a two-goal lead in the third period on a Malkin-less Penguins with the crowd behind them. And lost.

The Pens are a veteran and battle-tested group. They displayed their typical resiliency against the odds. Even down 2-0 in the final period, the Pens never blinked.

As noted earlier, there is a lot of hockey left to play. A team must win four games in order to advance. The Pens have one of those four.

But this Pens-Caps series already feels like déjà vu, all over again.

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