- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 2, 2009

Petr Nedved, Kevin Stevens, Ken Wregget, Martin Straka — these names are the ghosts of playoffs past for the Washington Capitals. There will be 20 players in the Caps’ lineup Saturday, and none of those 20 has played a playoff game against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yet the history between the franchises remains an open wound for a fan base desperate to move past years of misery.

“I don’t think the guys know too much about it. I sure as hell don’t know the history of this series,” Caps defenseman Tom Poti said. “I am sure it is frustrating for the fans because [the Caps] couldn’t get past them in the playoffs. Everything is different — different players, different coaches. We play in a different rink [than the first five times]. You can’t really compare anything from the past.”

Washington fans know it all too well. From 1991 to 2001, the Caps and Penguins met seven times in the postseason. Six times Pittsburgh prevailed, often in excruciating fashion. Twice the Penguins rallied from a 3-1 series deficit. Once the Caps won the first two games — in Pittsburgh, no less — before dropping four straight contests.

When Pittsburgh switched goaltenders, the maneuver saved the series. The opposite was true for the Caps: Six times Washington changed starting goalies against the Penguins in a playoff series, and five of those games resulted in losses.

Whether it was Nedved’s goal to end a four-overtime thriller in 1996 or Straka’s overtime tally to finish the series in 2001, the defining moments of the Washington-Pittsburgh postseason history are not fond memories in this area.

“We and those later Penguins teams had the big guys — Mario [Lemieux], [Jaromir] Jagr, Ronnie Francis — and at the end of the day, that gives you a belief that you can take a series over,” said Penguins television analyst Bob Errey, an alternate captain on the 1991 and 1992 teams that won the Stanley Cup. “It is a belief. I believe we were confident, riding the edge of cocky, in 1992. It was attitude more than anything, and I think the Penguins kept that attitude in future playoff series against Washington.”

The series in 1992 began the string of despair for Caps followers. Pittsburgh was the defending Stanley Cup champion, but the Caps pushed the Penguins to the brink of elimination in the first round of the playoffs.

Washington won three of the first four games in the series, including a 7-2 thrashing at then-Civic Arena in Game 4. Instead of finishing the job, the Caps got outscored 14-7 in the next three games, and the Penguins were on their way to another Stanley Cup.

“I wanted to win that series so bad because it was physical; it was a nasty, nasty series,” said Penguins radio analyst Phil Bourque, a teammate of Errey’s in both 1991 and 1992. “I remember jumping up and down on the bench and punching the glass. I don’t think I was ever so happy winning a hockey game. We needed to go through that series. I think whatever team came out of that series would have won the Cup. It wasn’t a test. It wasn’t a challenge. It was a knock-down, drag-out fight, and the winner was going to be better for it.

“We lost five playoff games that year, and three came against Washington. That says it all to me.”

It has been eight years since the midseason return of Lemieux from retirement and the emergence of goaltender Johan Hedberg helped the Penguins beat the Caps in six games in the most recent playoff meeting between the franchises.

Now Lemieux stays in the owner’s box, Jagr has left both cities on bad terms and the only player with any connection to that series, former Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar, plays for the other side.

This is a new era for both franchises. Both washed out in the middle part of this decade and started over. There are many new, young stars on both sides of the rivalry, and they’re eager to script their own playoff history.

“My response is, ‘Where am I from? I’m from Wisconsin,’” Caps center David Steckel said. “I didn’t follow the Caps-Penguins rivalry. I was a Minnesota North Stars guy, and when they left I was a Chicago Blackhawks guy. I know nothing about it. Great, there is history between the teams, but no one in this room knows too much about it.

“We know the rivalry we’ve developed with these guys the past couple of years. We’ve been lucky enough to win some games here. If you want to look at it like that, we’ve taken over [the rivalry], but it is going to be a heated series.”

Added defenseman Brian Pothier: “[The media] is walking around asking about the history, and nobody knows — that’s a good thing. We don’t know the difference. We know Sidney Crosby, [Evgeni] Malkin, [Jordan] Staal — all these guys on the team now, and we’re going to compete and play against these guys.

“We’re not playing against Nedved and Jagr from back in the day.”

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