All jokes aside, the team that Caps fans always keep their eyes on is the Pittsburgh Penguins and rightfully so. This rivalry spans back decades, from the Patrick Division to the introductions and subsequent emergences of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, respectively. While the Capitals have had the upper hand in head-to-head matchups in the regular season (8-2-2 since 2007-2008), the Penguins essentially own Washington in the playoffs (the Caps are 1-7 in playoff series all-time against Pittsburgh, with the only win coming in 1994, but you already knew that). Both teams felt the wrath of the surging Montreal Canadiens during the playoffs, losing Game Sevens on home ice. This season looks to add another chapter in what might arguably be the most intense rivalry that the NHL has seen in quite some time.
Save The Date (season matchups): December 23 in Washington; January 1 in Pittsburgh (2011 Winter Classic); February 6 in Washington; February 21 in Pittsburgh.
Stocking Stuffers (notable additions): D Paul Martin (free agency via New Jersey); D Zbynek Michalek (free agency via Phoenix); RW Arron Asham (free agency via Philadelphia); C Mike Comrie (free agency via Edmonton).
Gift Receipts (notable losses): D Sergei Gonchar (free agency to Ottawa); D Jordan Leopold (free agency to Buffalo); D Mark Eaton (free agency to New York Islanders); LW Alexei Ponikarvosky (free agency to Los Angeles); RW Bill Guerin (free agency).
Ghosts Of Christmas Past (last season): 47-28-7 – Second in Atlantic Division – Fourth in Eastern Conference
Defending the Stanley Cup did not prove easy for Pittsburgh. After a hot 11-3-0 start in October, the Penguins lost some steam, going 8-6-0 throughout November. In fact, the Penguins did not earn more than 19 points in a month for the rest of the season. At season’s end, Pittsburgh claimed the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season with 101 points. Crosby & Co. eventually put away fifth-seeded Ottawa in six games before falling in seven games to Montreal in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
While the season didn’t end well for Pittsburgh, Crosby had a career year. Playing in all but one game, Crosby scored a career-best 51 goals, tied with Tampa Bay’s Steven Stamkos for the league lead, and finished tied for second with 109 points with Ovechkin. Don’t forget his Olympic-clinching goal in February to give Canada the gold medal.
Pittsburgh’s ultimate demise came about because of numerous injuries to key players. Evgeni Malkin missed 15 games because of shoulder/foot problems, while Gonchar missed 20 games, Maxime Talbot missed 37 games and Marc-Andre Fleury missed 15 games. Also, departing defensemen Rob Scuderi and Hal Gill took from the Penguins its top shutdown defensive pairing. Seasoned veterans like Gonchar, Eaton, Jay McKee and Brooks Orpik didn’t do much to help inexperienced replacements like Alex Goligoski and Kris Letang and the Penguins’ blueline suffered because of it.
Wish List (season outlook): Most of Pittsburgh’s moves this offseason cancelled each other out. The Penguins addressed their ailing defensive corps by signing Martin and Michalek during free agency. Martin and his offensive skill set will replace Gonchar as the team’s power play quarterback. Michalek is an excellent shutdown player and will bring back the physicality that Pittsburgh lacked without Scuderi and Gill. Veteran Bill Guerin will not return, but free-agent acquisition Mike Comrie will fill the gritty void.
If Pittsburgh can stay healthy (especially Malkin and Fleury) and Crosby and Jordan Staal continue to produce at high rates, the Penguins will continue their run on top of the Eastern Conference and will surely be a thorn in the Capitals’ side.