PITTSBURGH — Fans are keenly aware of the hatred between the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins. Whether it is viewed in the prism of Alex Ovechkin vs. Sidney Crosby, or Dale Hunter vs. Mario Lemieux, the rivalry is undoubtedly one of the most prominent in the NHL.
Thursday’s matchup in Pittsburgh was the chance for several new Capitals — and new Penguins, too — to get a taste of the rivalry. Veteran forwards Troy Brouwer and Joel Ward — acquired by Washington in the offseason — and Pittsburgh rookie center Joe Vitale already know is that it’s intense.
“It’s a pretty big deal around this locker room,” Brouwer said. “You get thrown right into it, and you just kind of have to adopt it.”
Jeff Halpern is technically a newcomer, but his first time in Washington gave him an appreciation of the rivalry before it became “Sid vs. Ovi.” He said fans have a better recollection of those days, though.
For this current Capitals team, it’s a seven-game series in the 2009 playoffs that reignited the fire.
“I think with this group the games are fresh, especially for a lot of these guys that playoff series a couple years ago is fresh in a lot their minds,” Halpern said.
Given the many changes the Capitals underwent this past offseason, the perception of this rivalry with the Penguins may have a different slant. But the new guys know what rivalries are like in the NHL, and Brouwer expected this one to compare to the Chicago Blackhawks and the Vancouver Canucks.
“Everyone’s up for these games, and it’s those games that you have to win and you really want to win, he said. “You judge your team as how well you do against them.”
Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma was injected into the Caps-Penguins rivalry in the middle of the 2008-09 series. And though his involvement isn’t deep-rooted, he agrees with Brouwer that facing Washington constitutes a “measuring stick” for his team.
“We think this game’s different,” he said. “There’s a different sense from our guys on our team going into this game. There’s a little bit different feel to the morning skate because we’re playing a very good team.”
“It depends on how many papers they read and how much they listen and the hype in the room or the hype anywhere, if there is any,” Boudreau said. “Or how much they watched games last year — any of those things. I can’t get in their heads as far as knowing what they feel or if they feel, ‘Oh yeah we’re playing Pittsburgh. I haven’t played them in two years or something.’ “
It’s hard to find an NHL player who didn’t watch HBO’s “24/7” documentary from last season that put the Capitals and Penguins in the spotlight leading up to the Winter Classic. Vitale was playing for the American Hockey League’s Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins last year but had his sights set on the show.
“Watching ‘24/7’ last year, you kind of get a glimpse what it’s about,” he said. “Good teams, great tradition — they battle hard, they work hard.”
At the end of the day, Ward and defenseman Roman Hamrlik said, facing the Penguins is just another chance for the Caps to prove themselves and earn two points. But what a rivalry like this does is help both teams get their games in gear — especially this early in the season.
Said Capitals goalie Tomas Vokoun: “You know what, they’re a good team, and if you want to be the top team you’ve got to beat the best teams.”
One rivalry game at a time.
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