For too long, the Caps-Pens rivalry, once a pressure cooker ready to boil over at any second, has been set to a tepid simmer. Six years without a playoff meeting has cooled the hatred built upon passionate playoff matchups. During that span, Ovie's game went MIA for a bit as did Sidney Crosby's ability to stay healthy enough to be in the lineup. A once proud rivalry has taken a back seat to others. Since 2009, these teams, which are more alike than Pens fans probably like to admit, have been stuck in neutral. The young teams, once expected to duke it out for dynasty status, have been passed by the Kings and Hawks as the top teams and top rivalry in the sport. The Caps-Pens regular season matchups though always hyped, are often more network bluster than actual substance.
Then something happened last week. There was snarl. There were huge hits. There were chops and chips and facewashes after every whistle. For maybe the first time since the
Last Tuesday's game was also an important step in the development of this current Caps team. The Capitals, long in search of an identity, may be coming together. The nastiness of the game didn't seem to bother the Caps. They seem tougher than before. Perhaps they can shed their reputation for softness. Outside of goalie Braden Holtby's stellar play it is difficult to pinpoint the exact reasons for their climb in the Eastern Conference standings. But a tougher attitude and being harder to play against seem to be at the top of the list. Why? Is it Brooks Orpik's leadership? Is it Barry Trotz's coaching style? Is Alex Ovechkin maturing into the all-around player he could have always been? I don't know. What I do know is that when the Penguins got dirty with cross checks and sucker punches last week, the Caps didn't blink. Players that shy away from the rough stuff were in the mix. To paraphrase the announcer in the movie Slapshot, "The fans are standing up to them! The security guards are standing up to them! The peanut vendors are standing up to them! By God, even Eric Fehr is standing up to them!" An identity forged of toughness, togetherness and offensive firepower could make the Capitals formidable down the stretch.
Which brings us to tomorrow night's rematch in Washington. The Pens have cheap shots to answer for. The Caps have home ice to defend. Pittsburgh is likely surly as the Caps have had their number so far this year. Washington can pass Pittsburgh in the standings with the victory. There is a lot at stake. A possible bloodbath in the making that can continue the shenanigans from last week and lay the groundwork for a possible matchup later in this Spring. I hope somebody pulls a Reg Dunlop and pays the ambulance driver to take a few pre-game laps up and down F-street ringing the siren to stoke the bloodlust of the fans coming to enjoy the rivalry. A rivalry renewed.