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Penguins

How many times did the Penguins keep the Capitals from the Cup?

Jonathan Bombulie
| Wednesday, June 6, 2018, 11:15 a.m.
The Penguins celebrate Patric Hornqvist's goal against the Capitals in the third period during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Capitals on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at Verizon Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins celebrate Patric Hornqvist's goal against the Capitals in the third period during Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal against the Capitals on Wednesday, May 10, 2017, at Verizon Center.

With one more win over the Vegas Golden Knights, the Washington Capitals will claim the franchise's first Stanley Cup championship.

To get into that position, the Capitals had to dispatch their greatest nemesis, the Penguins, in the second round of the playoffs.

The Penguins, of course, defeated excellent Capitals teams – championship-caliber teams, perhaps – en route to the Stanley Cup in 1991, 1992, 2009, 2016 and 2017. That leaves some wondering how many championships would reside in our nation's capital had it not been for the black and gold.

Let's take a closer look.

1991

If the Capitals, who lost to the Penguins in five games in the second round, had made it to the Stanley Cup Final, they would have had a very good chance to beat the Cinderella Minnesota North Stars, a 68-point team in the regular season for whom the clock eventually struck midnight.

The verdict: They wouldn't have got that far. A 100-point Boston team waited in the conference finals.

1992

This is an interesting one. The Capitals provided, by far, the toughest challenge the Penguins had to overcome en route to a championship. Playing with some swagger, led by Dino Ciccarelli and Dale Hunter, the Caps took a 3-1 lead in the first-round series before Mario Lemieux put in a left-wing lock and the Penguins rolled.

The verdict: There's no way to know whether the Capitals would have dispatched Boston and Chicago as decisively as the Penguins did in the final two rounds, but they would have had a fighting chance. Consider this a definite maybe.

1995

The Penguins beat the sixth-seeded Capitals in the first round in this season shortened by labor strife. They were then smoked by New Jersey, which was at the height of its defensive power.

The verdict: Washington would have fallen into the same trap the Penguins did.

1996

The East was wide open this season, allowing Florida to sneak through to the Stanley Cup Final, so it's not crazy to suggest the Capitals could have played for a championship if the Penguins didn't knock them off in the first round.

The verdict: Even if the Caps pulled that off, a dynamite Colorado team waited in the final series. No dice.

2000

The Capitals came in as division champs, but from a weak Southeast Division lot. The Penguins stomped them in five games.

The verdict: Who knows? Maybe Olaf Kolzig could have stopped Keith Primeau in the fifth overtime where Ron Tugnutt couldn't, but let's be real. These Caps weren't contenders.

2001

The sixth-seeded Penguins knocked off the Capitals, who again won a weak Southeast Division, in six games in the first round. The Penguins made a nice run to the conference finals, memorably beating Buffalo in six games, but a great New Jersey-Colorado final seemed preordained.

The verdict: Neither the Penguins nor Capitals could have stopped the win-one-for-Ray-Bourque train.

2009

If Marc-Andre Fleury hadn't made a remarkable glove save on an Alex Ovechkin breakaway in the opening moments and the Capitals had gone on to win Game 7 over the Penguins, there is little doubt they would have played for the Stanley Cup. Carolina wasn't exactly the most formidable conference finals foe in recent memory.

The real question is whether the Capitals could have knocked off the Detroit Red Wings like the Penguins did. The defending champs were a talented, experienced group coming off a dominant five-game win over Chicago in the conference finals. It's hard to imagine Semyon Varlamov handling Detroit as well as Fleury did in the final series.

Also, Sidney Crosby has said all along that the lessons learned from a 2008 finals loss to the Red Wings helped the team tremendously. The Capitals wouldn't have had that luxury. A group text from Ted Leonsis probably wouldn't be as inspirational as one from Mario Lemieux, either.

The verdict: If the Penguins didn't stop the Capitals in 2009, the Red Wings probably would have.

2016

The Penguins beat the Capitals in six games in the second round, but it was a series that could have easily gone either way. Five games were decided by one goal and Braden Holtby was on top of his game.

The question this time is whether the Capitals would have been able to knock off the Tampa Bay Lightning in the conference finals.

The 2016 stretch run version of the Penguins was the best the team has looked under Mike Sullivan. They dominated possession and caused havoc with a fast, disruptive forecheck. And they still needed seven games and an eagle-eye offside challenge by video coach Andy Saucier to get past a dynamic Lightning team that was in the middle of coming-out parties for Nikita Kucherov and Andrei Vasilevskiy.

The verdict: The Capitals beat the Lightning in the conference finals this year, so it would be foolish to contend they couldn't have done so two years ago, but if a superior Penguins team had such a hard time with Tampa Bay, could Washington really have won? It's a tough call, but the Penguins likely didn't keep the Capitals from the Cup in 2016.

2017

This was the probably the best Capitals team of the three that lost to the Penguins. Gearing up for one last run before a salary-cap crunch hit, they won the President's Trophy with 118 points in the regular season and added top defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline. The seven-game victory is probably the biggest upset the Penguins pulled off during either of their championship runs this decade.

It's hard to imagine the Capitals wouldn't have, eventually, figured out a way to break through Ottawa's 1-3-1 neutral-zone clog like the Penguins did. It's hard to imagine the Capitals wouldn't have tortured Pekka Rinne like the Penguins did in the final series.

The verdict: This is the year that should haunt the Capitals the most, even though it will largely be forgotten with one more win over the Golden Knights.

The final analysis

The idea held by some in the D.C. area that the Penguins were the only thing preventing the Ovechkin-era Capitals from hoisting the Stanley Cup is probably true.

If it hadn't been for the Penguins, the Capitals would probably be going for back-to-back championships in Game 5 against Vegas on Thursday night, perhaps even a three-peat. They might have had a 1992 trophy in their case as well.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at jbombulie@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.

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