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On The Couch: Examining the Pens-Caps Rivalry

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On the eve of the most riveting playoff matchup for our Washington Capitals since at least the 1998 Stanley Cup Finals versus the Red Wings of Day-twah, I feel compelled to delve into what some may find uncomfortable territory.

Why do we hate the Penguins so, more than all the others?  Is it simply a matter of wins and losses over the years?  What has wrought these psychic scars?

There's been a lot of talk about playoff history between the Capitals and Penguins, and about how none of the players themselves have played a part in that history.  In fact, no current Capital has ever faced the Penguins in the playoffs.  Further, the team is 4-1-2 against these vaunted rivals of Western Pennsylvania under Coach Boudreau.  But whether you're a Caps fan that has come on board post-lockout, or a long-time fan beseiged by bleary (and maybe also beer-y) eyed memories of past failures, a red rocker cannot deny the 1-6 playoff series record between the two clubs, or the two engravings of the team name "Pittsburgh Penguins" which currently grace or deface (depending on your perspective) the holy grail which rests in downtown Toronto in what is now called the Verizon Great Hall of the Hockey Hall of Fame.  (Hmm, Verizon you say?) 

So is it simply the one-sided history between the two clubs that fosters, and festers, such animosity for the black and gold?  Or is it deeper, hydra-headed? 

I remember days, whether at the old Capital Centre or in the current confines, when the Caps would defeat the Pens in a regular season contest.  Inevitably, I was forced to mingle with a smattering of Penguin supporters, waiting on the Metro platform for the same train as me.  Any attempt to boast the fresh victory would be met with some variation of the unassailable, and largely rhetorical, question as insult:  "How many Cups have the Caps won?"  Over the years, I learned to cherish small victories, though still dreaming of one day enjoying that ecstacy of my favorite team in all of sport winning the grand prize.

Yeah, I was jealous.  I was jealous of the Cup victories, both earned partially at my team's expense.  But also of the ardor of the Pittsburgh fan.  How they apparently traveled so well, spared great time, expense, and effort, to invade our home barn.  Of course, spiritually fed by that glorious history for which Caps fans hunger.

But at the same time I railed against the multitudes of barbarians at our gates, and particularly that so many of them lived among us in the D.C. metro area.  And how their numbers, predictably, grew in the wake of those two consecutive Cup victories in 1991 and 1992.  Why must I be tormented in my own home, I cried to the heavens?  Why can't I either enjoy victory with a unified crowd, or experience defeat in peace?  Much younger then, I did not understand the depth of allegiance, the fierce loyalty, one can cultivate for a particular team, even long after one moves away from his home town.  Having lived in New York City for almost ten years, I understand it quite well now. 

(And I also confess to appreciating a bit more the verbal sparring in the arena, so long as the home crowd is still dominantly the home crowd.)

But those burgeoning hordes that came on board the Pens' wagon after those two Cup wins, of which I just spoke?  Those that donned those hated colors for the first time, whilst fully entrenched in Caps land, and quite possibly with no connection to Iron City, going to Caps games and flaunting their stolen wealth?  They fully deserve our scorn, no doubt.

So I think that there's a lot more to this jealousy, this loathing, than simply Cup victories, and a history to which many Caps fans have bore no witness.  For example, I daresay that Caps Nation holds not quite the same emnity for those Detroit Red Wings, who have far more Cup engravings, and one at the Caps' direct expense, that it does for PIT. 

Is it also the sense of entitlement that the Penguins fan seems to have for the spotlight?  Is it the privileged status that the franchise was afforded during the ESPN days, with so many games involving that team, ad nauseam?  And to an even greater extent by outlets like Versus and HD Net post-lockout, not to mention the league's marketing engine itself which left the Capitals and Alex Ovechkin in the dust until recently?

Is it the demure personality of fresh-faced Sidney Crosby?  Ah, is it more the sham of that post-lockout draft "lottery" that handed the Penguins Crosby and left us with . . . Sasha Pokulok?

Is it the star power of Evgeni Malkin, the supposed true rival to the Great Eight, who may, in a certain way, recall the stunning offensive force that was Jaromir Jagr is his days in Ketchup-and-Pickle-ville?  Is it on account of Jagr himself, who by his own admission quit on our team, during the mercifully brief time that he skated for Les Capitals?

Is it simply the similar style of play recently on display between two clubs, a fantastic collision of hockey superheroes (or supervillians)?

Is it the city of Pittsburgh itself?  Is there a distinctive cultural distinction between Rust Town and the District which draws contempt or mockery?  Do you avoid Heinz ketchup or pickle products, Rolling Rock beer? 

Is it those aforementioned black-and-gold fans who descend upon the Centre Verizón, and spread themselves throughout the friendly confines like a virus, with a virulence possibly unmatched amongst rival fan bases?

Or, more to the point, the sentiment from the Pittsburgh camp (among others) that the Capitals, by contrast, haven't had real fans.  Ones that understand when to voice their displeasure at the location of a face-off, or question a particular line matchup, or argue when to chip and when to carry.  And when to leave, or return, to their seats, and when to stay put?

Regardless of the merits of that debate, we unquestionably do have those fans now, and that's what matters.  (And whether Penguins Nation had scores of such fans in the dark years preceding, and immediately following, the drafting of one Mario Lemieux (speaking of whom, don't miss reliving this gem) or, better still, preceding Crosby's introduction at the draft podium, is a worthy subject of discussion as well.)

I must, in fairness, point out that, of all the road arenas I've attended to watch the Caps take on the home team, I was most impressed with the Penguin fan (at least the Pittsburgh-dwelling breed).  During a playoff game in 2000 (which, of course, the Caps lost), I was treated to a spirited, yet intelligent, discussion of the merits of one Chris Simon, some other witty banter from those seated around me, a reprieve of sorts in the men's room for playing peacemaker in an altercation involving another Caps fan and the home faithful, and a chat with two local dudes in a pickup, who sent me off on the long car ride back to D.C. with a handful of Molsons (for the record, I was not driving).

So is it all of these things combined, a perfect storm of animosity set to explode tomorrow afternoon?  What's the mood amongst Rink readers today -- confident, nervous, angry, vindictive, excited?

For me, it all comes down to a good old-fashioned belief that we're due.  Our time has come, and the days of going home empty-handed and with heavy hearts is over.  In this era of rampant bailouts, we're calling for a little re-distribution of wealth in the form of fan satisfaction.  And who better to extract that satisfaction from than the Penguin fan?

And with that said, I leave you with this:  Take heart, be you despondent from this exercise in collective psychoanalysis, in this quote from Coach Boudreau:

All winning streaks have to come to an en end, and usually all grief-stricken fans have got to be excited one day.

"Is this the year?"