Why Caps fans love to hate the Penguins

Why Caps fans love to hate the Penguins
November 20, 2013, 7:30 am
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11.20.13: Caps week in review

As with most rivalries, there is more to the one between the Penguins and Capitals than just Sidney Crosby, Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Nicklas Backstrom.

There’s a history of hatred between the two teams and their fans, a hatred that will rear its ugly head again tonight when the Penguins visit a sold out Verizon Center.

“The crowd is into it,” said Capitals left wing Jason Chimera, who was introduced to the Caps-Pens rivalry in 2010. “There’s a lot of hatred toward Pittsburgh in the crowd when they play. Hate’s a strong word, but there’s a lot of dislike.”

“I think their crowd has a certain loudness to it that makes it a fun building to play in,” Penguins left wing Chris Kunitz said. “We’ve had some history and some really good games in that building against each other. … It’s a fun environment to play in.”

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The rivalry dates back to 1974 but it really heated up in 1990s when the Capitals and Penguins met in the playoffs in 1991, 1992, 1994, 1995 and 1996. The Penguins prevailed in four of those five playoff series, three times rallying back from two-game deficits.

The Penguins’ series victory in 1996 featured one of the most dramatic games in the rivalry’s history, with Peter Nedved scoring in the fourth overtime to lift the Penguins to a series-tying victory on Game 4.

The rivalry lay dormant for a few years but was rekindled when Ovechkin, the first overall pick in 2004, and Crosby, the first overall pick in 2005, came into the NHL together following the 2004-05 lockout.

The two superstars engaged in one of the greatest playoff games of all time on May 4, 2009 when they traded hat tricks in the Caps’ 4-3 win in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, a series the Caps went on to win in seven games.

“We know the past history, which is great, but the playoffs in ’09 really set the stage for this rivalry,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.

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“The sentiment that I can remember having is, whoever scores last here is going to win the game, is going to be the first star. It felt like every time they got the puck, they were going to do something with it, on both sides of the rink. That’s an uneasy feeling. Nice to see when your guy has it, but when their guy is doing the same thing, it ended up being who was going to score last and win this game.”

The rivalry seemed to reach its apex at the 2011 Winter Classic at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, a game won by the Caps on a pair of goals by Eric Fehr and preceded by HBO’s first look inside NHL locker rooms in 24/7. But the game also will be remembered for David Steckel’s blindside hit on Crosby, a hit the Penguins center says could have been avoided, which left Crosby with a concussion that would ultimately end his season and, at least temporarily put the Crosby-Ovechkin rivalry on hold.

Since that Winter Classic the Caps are 4-0-1 in the games Crosby has not played, while the Penguins are 4-0 against the Caps in the games he has. Overall, the Capitals are 14-12-5 against Pittsburgh during the Ovechkin-Crosby era.

“Alex Ovechkin, regardless where he’s been at, always has added some punch to this game,” Bylsma said. “Playing in their building, even more so.”

Ovechkin has 22 goals and 18 assists in the 31 games he has faced Pittsburgh, while Crosby has 14 goals and 29 assists in 25 games against Washington.

“I think it brings out the best in everybody,” Crosby said. “Both teams realize that there are a lot of eyes on those games, and we want to play well. That’s just a natural thing that happens when those two teams play each other, and those are the ones you get up for.

“That’s good for everyone – it’s good for the teams, it’s good for the fans. I think we all enjoy those games.”

Which bring us back to the most debatable question in sports. Who has the better fans? Bylsma said he expects the Washington fans to ride Crosby all night, taunting him with the same chants he hears in every NHL city.

“He produces when they’re chanting his name or saying he stinks or whatever they yell,” Bylsma said. “I think it’s just a motivating factor for him. He seems to rise to the occasion.

“When I see it, I think they’re in trouble. It’s not like getting booed at home. It’s not like getting jeered by your own fans. There’s certainly a motivating and a reward factor by Sid hearing those jeers and going after it. It seems like he always comes out on the positive side when the crowd is its worst.”

To no one’s surprise, the Caps believe they have the better fans of the two cities and will rely on them to Rock the Red on the corner of 6th and F.

“I would have to say Washington,” Backstrom said. “They have some good fans as well, but I think the Washington fans bring a great atmosphere. They’re loud and their not shy. That’s a good thing.”

Added Brooks Laich: “I love our building. I think our building is the top in the league. You see a lot of buildings have corporate tickets. In our building we have the actual fans. The die-hard, passionate fans are in our building, so it makes it the best building to play in the league.”