The rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins gave the NHL one of the most entertaining, famous and important head-to-head encounters in the past 15 years. With generational stars Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby leading their respective teams, hockey fans have watched their quest for a playoff berth over the past 15 years.
The Capitals host Pittsburgh on Thursday, the second of three games this season, to resume. The Penguins won Game 1 4-1 on Nov. 9, which proved to be a turning point for Pittsburgh. After snapping a seven-game winning streak, the Penguins are back in playoff spot with a 20-9-6 record.
Washington has undergone a similar turnaround, following a rocky start to one of the best calendar months in December in the past five years. Although they’ve cooled off so far in January, the Capitals will enter Thursday’s game tied with the Penguins for the top spot in the Eastern Wild Card standings with 56 points.
Pittsburgh will have a chance to win the season series with a victory at Capital One Arena. While a head-to-head win isn’t a terribly important tiebreaker — they’re fifth in seven tiebreakers — the Capitals need every win to get past the next closest team in the standings. Washington has played 50 games, tied for the most in the NHL. The Penguins have three games in hand, which gives them the edge in the contest.
For the first time in Ovechkin’s and Crosby’s careers, the Capitals and Penguins are fighting for playoff life at the same time. At least one of them has won the division title in 12 of the past 15 seasons since 2007-08. In the nine seasons with the current playoff format, they’ve never both finished as a wild-card team.
Now, the Penguins hold the first tiebreaker in the Capitals thanks to a higher scoring rate. Washington, however, has a slight advantage with a regular-season win (21-20) and a regular-overtime win (25-23) and the next two tiebreakers. A win Thursday will help get some cushion in those categories for the Penguins to catch up on those extra games later.
The Penguins aren’t the only team the Capitals have to worry about. Heading into Wednesday’s roster, the Buffalo Sabers (53 points), Florida Panthers (52 points) and New York Islanders (51 points) were all within five points of Washington and Pittsburgh. They’re also close to the New York Rangers (59), who are third in the metro.
Just as important as making the playoffs is avoiding a second wild card spot. The last team in the East will play the Boston Bruins (80) in the first round.
Boston has 14 more points than any other team in the NHL and leads the league in goals scored (181) and fewest goals (98). Its goal difference of 83 is almost double that of the second-placed Dallas Stars, who have a goal difference of 42.
That said, Thursday’s win could go a long way toward helping either the Capitals or the Penguins in the April standings. Health will be a factor, especially for Washington, which played Tuesday without Nicklas Backstrom (non-COVID illness) and saw Tom Wilson leave early after blocking a shot with his leg. The Penguins returned star defenseman Kris Letang on Tuesday from a month-long absence, while starting goaltender Tristan Jarry missed the All-Star Game with an upper-body injury.
There have been many big matchups between the Capitals and Penguins over the years, but for the first time in this era, they’re going head-to-head in a battle to secure a playoff spot.