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Starkey: Still waiting on Pens-Caps, Part II

| Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014, 10:24 p.m.
USA Today Sports
Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom (19) skates with the puck as Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) chases in the second period Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013, in Washington.

Whenever the Penguins play the Washington Capitals, I tend to reminisce a little and wonder a lot.

I reminisce about the greatest playoff series I have ever witnessed: the seven-game epic of 2009, the one that catapulted the Penguins all the way to a Stanley Cup championship. I wonder if we'll ever see these teams play another.

I wonder about what has transpired since and why they've so radically underachieved nearly every spring.

These thoughts are particularly acute in advance of a prime-time matchup with all the stars present and accounted for (James Neal pending) Wednesday at 8 p.m. on NBC. Five of the top 12 scorers in the league could be on display.

Five years ago, the Penguins and Capitals looked for all the world like the rising powers of the East. They were young, fast, deep, uber-talented clubs sprinkled with decorated veterans such as Sergei Gonchar, Bill Guerin, Sergei Fedorov and Viktor Kozlov.

I remember Brooks Orpik telling reporters that he and Sidney Crosby had excitedly exchanged texts the instant they learned the Capitals would be their opponent.

With the eyes of a giddy hockey world upon it, the series far surpassed its billing. Crosby and Alex Ovechkin — cast as the Bird-Magic saviors of a league that really didn't need saving — combined for 27 points, including hat tricks for each in Game 2.

Going into the deciding game in D.C., the teams had been tied or within a goal for 92 percent of the series, much of it played at breathtaking speed and with breakneck intensity.

The Penguins prevailed in a Game 7 blowout that saw Gonchar's dramatic return from a knee injury, Marc-Andre Fleury's memorable breakaway save on Ovechkin and finally Crosby scoring late after stripping Ovechkin of the puck. An angle from behind the Washington net provided an enduring image: Crosby skating in alone as Ovechkin, on his knees, slowly faded off the screen.

If you would have told me that four seasons would pass without a rematch, I'd have been surprised and disappointed. If you'd told me that neither club would reach the Stanley Cup Final and only one would get as far as the Eastern final (once), I'd have been stunned.

Penguins defenseman Rob Scuderi shares the sentiment.

“I'd have been surprised, considering the depth of both teams and the star power of both,” Scuderi said. “I'd have been very surprised.”

Crosby wouldn't have been.

“It's pretty hard to get there,” he said. “Knowing how difficult it is and knowing you have to get some bounces, not just be good, it's not necessarily (surprising).”

The Penguins have been the more stable franchise in the interim and have endured more crippling injuries. But the similarities are striking:

• Both teams were eliminated by Jacques Martin's Montreal Canadiens in 2010.

• Both were eliminated by Tampa Bay in 2011.

• The Penguins have seven players who appeared in Game 7 of '09 and have stayed to the present, the Capitals six.

• The Penguins are 3-4 in playoff series, the Capitals 2-4. Both have endured significant goaltending meltdowns, defensive lapses and scoring droughts.

• Coming into this season, the Penguins had 387 points since the beginning of the 2009-10 season, the Capitals 377.

• Washington leads the season series, 9-7. Each has taken turns dominating. The Penguins have won five in a row.

Injuries to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin have sapped the rivalry of some juice. Crosby's concussion woes started in the Winter Classic of 2011 when Capitals forward David Steckel drilled him in the head. The game Wednesday will mark just the ninth time in the past 17 meetings that Crosby, Malkin and Ovechkin have shared the ice.

Another factor possibly affecting both teams at playoff time: Both were tailor-made for the NHL's obstruction-free world but have seen the insidious reappearance of the clutch, grab and illegally get-in-your-way game.

It's not hard to find Penguins players who speak of the steady rise in interference. Assistant coach Jacques Martin — the same guy who beat the Capitals and Penguins in 2010 — agrees.

“We see it gradually creeping back in — more and more interference,” Martin said. “To me it's unfortunate because our game has such great speed, great skill, and we should just allow it. But it's something we don't control.”

Nor do we control playoff matchups, of course, and after seeing one Penguins-Capitals series after another for decades, the well has suddenly gone dry.

Part of me wonders if the hockey gods are preventing it. If maybe they wish to preserve Pens-Caps 2009 forever, just as it was, untouched, with no attempt to replicate.

Could you blame them?

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com.

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