ARLINGTON, Va. - For the third year in a row, the Washington Capitals' path to the Eastern Conference final goes through Pittsburgh. And they can only hope their third attempt goes better than the first two.
The Capitals have fallen short in back-to-back second-round series against the Penguins, who went on to win the Stanley Cup both times. It’s the 11th occasion on which the franchises have met in the postseason; Pittsburgh has won nine of 10, only losing in the first round in 1993-94.
Both have taken turns dominating their division in recent years. Under the current playoff format, that means plenty of second-round encounters, and their third straight conference semifinal bout kicks off Thursday night at Capital One Arena.
"The way the playoff system is set up, it's going to be that way until it changes,” Capitals goalie Braden Holtby said. “That's just the way it is. I don't think it's a surprise to any of us that this would be another matchup that could come. But we didn't think too much about it.”
Washington hopes this time will be different. Both series felt more like an Eastern Conference final than a second-round meeting and, while the Capitals were game opponents, the Penguins prevailed in six in 2016 and escaped with a seven-game triumph in 2017.
Capitals players are well aware Pittsburgh has won nine consecutive playoff series dating back to 2016.
“Nobody’s been able to beat them,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said. “They have a lot of experience, they’re talented. It’s quite the challenge. I think we’re excited for that challenge. Somebody’s going to beat them eventually, so let’s get excited about our opportunity that maybe we’re the team to do it.”
The Capitals haven’t made the Eastern Conference final since 1998; they reached the Stanley Cup Final that season but were swept by the powerhouse Detroit Red Wings. Washington hasn't made it out of the second round during captain Alex Ovechkin’s career, despite making the playoffs in all but three of his 13 NHL seasons.
“One day, it (has) to happen,” Ovechkin said. “If we want to get success, we have to beat Pittsburgh and move forward. They (are the) most experienced team right now in the league. Lots of great players over there, and it's a huge challenge."
Both teams are a little different this time around. The Penguins lost Nick Bonino, Matt Cullen, and Trevor Daley to free agency, and Marc-Andre Fleury to the expansion draft. They added Riley Sheahan and Derick Brassard to bolster center depth, and Jamie Oleksiak on the blue line. Rookies Zach Aston-Reese and Dominik Simon were called up from Wilkes-Barre.
Washington lost Justin Williams and Karl Alzner in free agency and Nate Schmidt in the expansion draft, was forced to trade Marcus Johansson to clear cap space, but added Michal Kempny and Jakub Jerabek to the blue line, and Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly up front.
The Capitals won the Metropolitan Division despite starting the season 10-9-1, and the Penguins certainly won't be taking them lightly.
“You have to face everybody,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “You have to face the best team going forward, so if you want to win it all, you have to face those big teams, and the Capitals are the next team that we have on our path. So we have to bring our 'A' game, they're a good team."
One other way this series differs from the others is that the Penguins are facing major adversity heading into Game 1. Injured forwards Evgeni Malkin and Carl Hagelin will not play in the opener, though Malkin, who had 98 points in the regular season, made the trip to Washington; both were hurt during the Penguins' first-round triumph over the rival Philadelphia Flyers.
Regardless of who shuffles in and out of the respective lineups, these are two top NHL teams painfully familiar with one another, and that should make for some great hockey.
“We faced each other for a lot of games and we should know each other right now inside out,” Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom said. “That's just how it is. It's usually (a) tight series and one-goal games.
"Yeah. We're excited about this one.”