Brian Pothier can empathize with longtime fans of the Washington Capitals.
Before joining the Caps he played for the Ottawa Senators, who were at the time one of the powers in the Eastern Conference. Problem was, his Senators could not defeat their biggest rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, in the playoffs.
Each year his team would identify a slogan for the postseason, and one year it was focused solely on the other team from Ontario.
“It was ‘Slay the Dragon,’ ” Pothier said. “They were just comfortable playing us. They just had good results in the past, and they performed well against us. It is like trying to beat up your older brother. When you get older, you might be bigger and stronger than him, but for some reason he has that mental edge. We abused them in the regular season. We had the tougher team, more skill, everything - but there was just some block.”
For Caps fans, the Pittsburgh Penguins represent the dragon. While many of the current Caps were Mites or Bantams when teams from Washington routinely found agonizing ways to lose to Pittsburgh in the postseason, that pain still resonates for a portion of the team’s fan base.
An opportunity to excommunicate the grief of past playoff failures is coming Wednesday night for the Caps when they play host to the Penguins in Game 7 of their blockbuster Eastern Conference semifinal series. A berth in the NHL’s final four is at stake, but this game will mean much, much more to those who sat through the meltdowns at the old Capital Centre in the 1990s.
This wouldn’t just be a boisterous celebration for some of the 18,277 in attendance - it could be a cathartic experience.
“That comes from before I was here, and I guess some fans believe that for some reason we can’t beat Pittsburgh,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said. “That’s the easy road out - to accept that and to lose. That’s not this locker room. That’s not our head coach or our organization. We play hard, and we think we can beat anybody.”
This group already has proved it could do what many past editions could not - win an elimination game against the Penguins. Longtime followers watched Game 6 and saw it all playing out again. A late Pittsburgh goal - by chief villain Sidney Crosby, no less - sent the contest to overtime, in which some bad bounce or bit of misfortune would surely doom the Caps.
It had happened in Games 3 and 5 - Pittsburgh won games in overtime with goals that glanced off Shaone Morrisonn’s leg and Tom Poti’s outstretched stick. Sure enough, Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi beat Simeon Varlamov with a long-distance shot early in the overtime.
But the shot pinged harmlessly off the crossbar, and eventually David Steckel earned the Caps a fortunate bounce when he tipped Laich’s shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury to set off a wild celebration for 20 guys dressed in white while the white-out crowd at Mellon Arena looked on in disbelief.
What happened to this curse, this hex some Caps fans fear when the Penguins are involved?
“Honestly, that didn’t cross my mind once. I didn’t think we were the Boston Red Sox or Chicago Cubs,” Pothier said. “It is a different time, and it is hard to compare. It is like the Boston Bruins feeling like they just couldn’t beat the [Montreal] Canadiens back in the ‘70s. It doesn’t really translate. For us, we’re a totally different team than we were back then.”
Now the Caps will welcome their bitter rivals to the District and what should be a hostile environment for the conclusion of a landmark postseason showdown between two current and likely future NHL superpowers.
Maybe there will be patrons in the seats at Verizon Center expecting misery and a crushing defeat. There won’t be anyone on the home team’s bench thinking the same way.
“For sure, we all know about the history that Washington has had with Pittsburgh, and it is definitely in Pittsburgh’s favor,” Caps forward Matt Bradley said. “Ever since [Alex] Ovechkin and Crosby have been in the league, the rivalry has been even more heated. I think it is great for the game, but as far as it goes for us, there is no team we’d rather beat more than Pittsburgh in a Game 7 - especially at home.”