Sunday, August 18, 2013

Washington Capitals: Rivalries Reborn -- The "MetroPatrick" Division, Part VI: Pittsburgh Penguins

Our look back at the Washington Capitals’ history against their rivals in the old Patrick Division finally gets to the team that Caps fans have grown to love to hate – the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins had an intradivisional rivalry that preceded their Patrick Division rivalry.  When the National Hockey League expanded to 18 teams for the 1974-1975 season, adding the Washington Capitals and the Kansas City Scouts, the Caps were placed in the new Norris Division of the Prince of Wales Conference.  There they would reside with the Penguins for the next five seasons until the league expanded to 21 teams for the 1979-1980 season.  The Capitals were sent to the Patrick Division, while the Penguins remained behind in the Norris.  The Penguins would make their move to the Patrick Division in the 1981-1982 season, taking the place of the Calgary Flames who, one season removed from their relocation from Atlanta, were realigned into the Smythe Division of the Clarence Campbell Conference.

The Caps and Penguins had something in common in that first year together in the Patrick Division.  They were not very good.  However, since four of the five teams in the conference would make the playoffs, the Penguins would get in by virtue of their fourth-place finish.  They made it largely at the expense of the Caps, who they defeated in the season series, five games to two with one tie.

When the Penguins won the first game of the 1982-1983 season series it might have seemed as if it would be more of the same in Year 2 of their Patrick Division rivalry.  It was not.  When the Caps beat the Penguins, 5-4, at Capital Centre on December 2, 1982, it touched off a span of 27 games over which the Caps would dominate the Penguins to the tune of a 23-2-2 record.  It was not as if the games were especially close, either.  Over those 27 games the Caps averaged 4.8 goals per contest, holding the Penguins to 2.6 goals per game.  There were only six one-goal games in that 27-game span, the Caps winning all six.  There were 14 games decided by three or more goals, the Caps going 12-2 in those contests.  Twice the Caps beat the Pens by 9-1 scores.

Not even the entrance of Mario Lemieux into the rivalry made much of a difference.  Lemieux started his NHL career in the 1984-1985 season, but only once in his first two seasons could the Penguins beat the Caps, an 8-1 win on February 12, 1986.

Although the Caps utterly dominated the Penguins, it would be hard to think of this rivalry as being all that intense, especially when compared to the Caps’ experience against the New York teams and the Philadelphia Flyers.  Even when the Caps 23-2-2 run came to an end with the end of the 1985-1986 season, the Penguins could not swing the pendulum entirely in the other direction and make this a rivalry to challenge the intensity of the other Patrick Division rivalries the Caps had, at least not right away. 

The Pens did turn things around somewhat in the 1986-1987 season, winning four of the first six games of the season series.  It was the seventh and last game of that season series that Caps fans might remember best, though, and one that might have set the stage for a more intense rivalry to come.  On March 20, 1987, the Caps and Penguins were rolling into the last ten games of the regular season battling for the fourth and final playoff spot in the Patrick Division.  The Caps went into that game in fourth place with a 30-32-9 record, while the Pens were in fifth place with a 28-33-11 record.  The Caps were leaking oil, though, having gone 1-4-1 in their previous six games.  The Penguins were not blazing themselves, but at least they had a 5-3-0 record in their previous eight contests.

That was the setting for a late-season Friday night game in Landover, Maryland.  If the Capitals-Penguins rivalry lacked a certain intensity to that point in their Patrick Division histories, the urgency of a late-season rush for a playoff spot added some fuel to it.  It exploded 77 seconds into the second period.  It started with a scrum along the boards to the right of the Penguins’ net.  The Caps’ Gaetan Duchesne and Pens’ Troy Loney exchanged shoves while the linesman was separating the Penguins’ Mario Lemieux and the Capitals’ Bobby Gould.  Gould started skating up ice when he was challenged by Lemieux to a throwdown.  Gould obliged before the linesman could get back between them.  Three right hands from Gould later, it was over.  Gould dropped Lemieux with those wallops before Penguin forward Craig Simpson jumped in and pulled Gould off the fallen Penguin center.

The dazed Lemieux had to be helped off the ice, and the Caps would go on to defeat the Penguins, 4-3.  It started an 8-0-1 run for the Caps to finish the season in second place in the Patrick Division.  The loss would be the first of a 2-5-1 finish for the Penguins that left them out of the money in the race for a playoff spot in the 1986-1987 season.

Starting with the 1987-1988 season the Caps would lose nine of the next 11 games they played against the Penguins and would go 8-18-2 against Pittsburgh through the end of the 1991 regular season.  Caps fans did not know it at the time, but it was the advance wave of a new source of frustration and heartbreak for the Caps.  This is when the Caps-Penguins rivalry fans came to know started coming into being.

That 1990-1991 season was the first in which the teams would meet in the post-season.  Pittsburgh finished first in the Patrick Division, seven points ahead of the third-place Caps.  Washington eliminated the New York Rangers in the division semi-finals in six games, while Pittsburgh knocked off the New Jersey Devils in seven games in their semi-final series.

The division finals opened in Pittsburgh, and the home team took a 2-1 lead into the third period of Game 1.  The Caps tied the game in the third period on a Kevin Hatcher power play goal, and Al Iafrate put the Caps up for good with less than five minutes left in what would be a 4-2 Caps win.

The Caps had a chance to put the Pens in a deep hole in Game 2 in Pittsburgh, and it looked as if they would do just that after the Pens took another lead into the third period.  With the home team leading, 5-3, Dino Ciccarelli scored two goals in the first eight minutes of the period to tie the game.  Calle Johansson scored just over two minutes after the second Ciccarelli goal, giving the Caps a 6-5 lead.  Goalie Mike Liut – playing in relief of starter Don Beaupre – could not make it stand up, though, allowing a Randy Gilhen goal with less than five minutes left in regulation to tie the game.  It would be Gilhen’s only goal – only point – of the 1991 playoffs.  Kevin Stevens might have saved the Pens’ season when he scored just over eight minutes into the overtime to tie the series at a game apiece.

It was all downhill for the Caps after that.  Washington was able to muster only a single goal in each of the next three games, the victim of Penguin goalie Tom Barrasso stopping 97 of 100 shots.  Pittsburgh won all three games and the series, and would go on to win the first Stanley Cup in their history.

In the 1991-1992 season the Caps won five of the first six regular season meetings and did so in commanding fashion, outscoring the Pens by a 32-11 margin in the five wins.  The teams had one more meeting, though, in what would be the Caps last game of the regular season.  For Washington, the game did not mean much.  The Caps already clinched the second spot in the division.  For Pittsburgh, the game did not mean a lot more.  The Penguins already clinched a playoff spot with two games remaining.  However, there was the matter of seeding.  Pittsburgh came into game 79 of their season in fourth place in the division, two points behind the New Jersey Devils, who were wrapping up their regular season the same night as the Caps and Penguins were meeting.  A win and a New Jersey loss would vault the Penguins into third place in the division and a first round playoff matchup against the Caps.

That confluence of events made the meeting between the Caps and Pens on April 15th in Pittsburgh something of a “Game 0” of the Patrick Division semi-finals.  And Pittsburgh would go into the game missing their leading scorer, Mario Lemieux, who was on the shelf with a badly bruised shoulder.  The Penguins had another weapon, though.  Second-year forward Jaromir Jagr scored his 31st and 32nd goals of the season to lead the Penguins to a 4-1 win over the Caps, third place in the division (the Devils lost that night), and that first-round matchup against the Caps.

The Caps took advantage of Lemieux’ third straight absence from the Penguin lineup when they took Game 1 of the division semi-finals.  Peter Bondra led the way with two goals for the Caps, and goalie Don Beaupre stopped 32 of 33 shots in a 3-1 Washington win at Capital Centre.

It looked even better for the Caps in Game 2.  Mario Lemieux returned to the lineup and contributed assists on the first two goals of the game.  That would be the extent of Lemieux’ contribution and the Penguins’ offense for the evening.  Peter Bondra and Michal Pivonka had identical 1-2-3 scoring lines, Dino Ciccarelli and Dmitri Khristich each had a goal and an assist, and Don Beaupre stopped the last 28 shots he faced in the Caps’ 6-2 win.

The Caps headed off to Pittsburgh looking to drive a stake into the defending Stanley Cup champions.  That would not be the operative metaphor for Game 3.  “Street fight” was more like it, and it was not one that the Caps would win.  It was a penalty fest.  Eight penalties were called in the first period, all of them leading to power plays – none of the penalties were of the coincidental variety. 

The Caps came out of that first period with a 2-1 lead, but the tone had been set.  Pittsburgh – behind a four-point period by Lemieux – wiped out the Caps’ first intermission lead and took a 5-2 lead into the third period.  The Caps got back to within a goal on scores by Al Iafrate and Kevin Hatcher, but Lemieux scored an empty-net goal to complete a hat trick and six-point night in the Penguins’ 6-4 win.  A total of 23 power plays were awarded in the game, the Caps going 2-for-11 and the Penguins going 3-for-12.

Washington shook off the Game 3 setback and put the Penguins on the brink of elimination in Game 4 in Pittsburgh.  The Caps got two goals in the first eight minutes of the contest, took a 3-0 lead into the locker room at the first intermission, and chased starting Penguin goaltender Tom Barrasso.  Dino Ciccarelli put the Caps up 4-0 early in the third period before the Penguins could find their offense, getting one back off the stick of Mario Lemieux.  It was too little, too late for the Penguins.  The Caps scored three more times, Ciccarelli ending the evening with a four-goal night and Mike Ridley finishing with three assists in the Caps’ 7-2 win.

Then it was back to Washington for Game 5 and a chance for the Caps to close out the series.  The celebration would have to wait, though.  Pittsburgh played a smart road game, forsaking run-and-gun for clamping down on defense.  The Penguins held the Caps to just four shots on goal in the second period and Dino Ciccarelli without a shot on goal over the first 40 minutes.  Meanwhile, former Cap Larry Murphy scored a power play goal in the second period to give the Penguins a 3-2 lead they would not give up.  Jaromir Jagr scored on a breakaway later in the period, and the Pens would add a late goal in the 5-2 win

Game 6 in Pittsburgh turned into a Nightmare in the Igloo for the Caps.  The Penguins scored the game’s first two goals, both by forward Kevin Stevens, both set up by Mario Lemieux.  The Caps came back with four of their own, two of them by forward Peter Bondra, to take a 4-2 lead early in the second period.  The Caps could not stop Lemieux, though.  Only Lemieux could…to the Penguins’ advantage.  With the Penguins nursing a one-goal lead, Lemieux drew a penalty from Dino Ciccarelli, a call some folks might have thought Lemieux embellished to referee Andy Van Hellemond.  With Ciccarelli in the penalty box, Lemieux converted the power play, and the Pens were in the clear, eventually winning Game 6 by a 6-4 margin.  Lemieux finished the night with two goals and three assists.

That left it up to Game 7 at Capital Centre.  Going into that game on May 1st, there had been only 10 teams over more than half a century of Stanley Cup playoff history to come back from a 3-1 deficit in games in a best-of-seven series.  The Penguins made a bid to make it 11 when Mario Lemieux scored a shorthanded goal in the first period to put Pittsburgh up, 1-0.  After the Caps tied the game on a goal by Al Iafrate, Lemieux set up Jaromir Jagr for a power play goal to restore the Penguins’ one-goal lead.  The visitors clamped down after that, holding the Caps to a total of 19 shots on goal for the game.  Joe Mullen scored into an empty net in the game’s last minute to complete the comeback and send the Caps to the golf course for the summer.

The Penguins would go on to win their second straight Stanley Cup.  The Caps would go on to make it something of a cottage industry in dropping playoff series after taking two-game leads.  That division semi-final loss to the Penguins was the second time in six years the Caps dropped a series after taking a 3-1 lead in games.  They would go on to do it in 1995 (again to the Penguins), would lose a 2-0 lead in games in 1996 (yes, to Pittsburgh), lose a 2-0 lead in games to Tampa Bay in 2003, lose a 2-0 lead in games in 2009 (again with the Penguins), lose a 3-1 lead in games to Montreal in 2010, and would lose a 2-0 lead to the New York Rangers in 2013.

All of those series came after the Patrick Division was dissolved after the 1992-1993 season.  The 1991-1992 division semi-final series against the Penguins was the last time the teams would meet as Patrick Division rivals.  But the storm clouds had already gathered overhead in what would be the Capitals-Penguins rivalry that would carry over into their Atlantic Division years that would last through the 1990’s and into their post-season rivalry of the early 2000’s. 

It always seemed to rain on the Caps, a disappointing period of hockey for the team and their fans with the Penguins replacing the New York Islanders of the 1980’s as the agent of heartbreak.  As fans would come to realize in the Capitals-Penguins rivalry in the Patrick Division, regular season domination – that 23-2-2 run in the 1980’s by the Caps – would not be what was remembered, but what would happen in the playoffs.