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A Thaw in the Cold War: The Once and Future Capitals-Penguins Rivalry

Getty Images
Getty Images

As the Zambonis prepped the ice for Game 2 of the Penguins-Capitals second-round playoff series on Saturday night in Washington, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was being detained in a concrete bunker somewhere in Toronto — in true hostage fashion, he even held up the day’s newspaper as proof of life — to determine, with the help of some ping-pong balls, which team would pick when in next month’s NHL draft.

By the end of the evening, the Penguins had tied the series at a game apiece, the Toronto Maple Leafs had won the top spot in the draft (I can no longer deride them as the Knicks of the NHL, because the Knicks would have traded that pick long ago), and a stat sure to simmer down giddy Leafs fans was making the rounds on Twitter:

That two of those players, Marc-Andre Fleury and Sidney Crosby, were Pittsburgh Penguins lent a sort of circle-of-life-lightning-crashes element to the night. Fleury was 24 when Pittsburgh won the Cup in 2009, and Crosby was still 21. It was the Pens’ second straight appearance in the final. Given the circumstances that year, it was difficult not to fantasize about a dynasty, to wonder how many rings they could feasibly win over the next decade or so.

But the championship series wasn’t the only noteworthy event that season. Pittsburgh’s road to the 2009 Cup included a second-round, seven-game series against the Washington Capitals that felt, at the time, like the beginning of something more — an X-Men origin story of a matchup.

Three of the games were decided in overtime. Another boasted an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better pair of hat tricks from Crosby and his Russian machine foil, Alex Ovechkin, whom the Caps had drafted first overall in 2004, just before the NHL lost a season to a labor dispute. (The Penguins took Fleury in 2003 and won a post-lockout leaguewide lottery for the right to snag Crosby in 2005.) The series seemed to be a glimpse into a glorious future, the start of a beautiful hateship, a preview of what would surely be many Eastern Conference final deathmatches to come. It became, for a time, the NHL’s predominant marketing strategy: Ovi and Sid, the new Cold War.

But hockey has a way of making other plans — of reminding us that the professional lives of even the most tough and gruff athletes can be outrageously, and often unfairly, delicate. In the seven years since the Caps last played the Pens in the playoffs, the two franchises have collectively employed seven head coaches. Only once has either team advanced past the second round, when the Bruins swept the Penguins in the 2013 Eastern Conference final. Ovechkin has been called a coach killer (and has called a coach this), and Crosby has been concussed, and the most celebrated NHL playoff rivalry of the decade turned out to be the one between the Chicago Blackhawks and Los Angeles Kings.

On Monday night, in Game 3, the Capitals were a force to be reckoned with: They more than doubled Pittsburgh’s shot count, 49–23, they mounted a furious late-game charge featuring some of Ovechkin’s most monstrous shots, and they still lost the game, 3–2, to fall behind 2–1 in the series. Things are already growing ugly entering Wednesday’s Game 4, with both teams seeing players suspended for illegal hits. This matchup is about more than just Crosby and Ovechkin; you know teams are deep when guys like Evgeny Kuznetsov and Phil Kessel are the sidekicks.

With any luck, this will go seven and be another perfectly dysfunctional relationship of a series: volatile, even hostile, yet long-lasting and punctuated by joy. If it is, let’s not take it for granted. Leave the daydreaming to the draft.

This piece originally appeared in the May 4, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.