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The Capitals really have to get over their Penguins problem this time

Now that the Capitals have beaten the Blue Jackets, their historic playoff roadblock is in the way again.

Washington Capitals v Columbus Blue Jackets - Game Six Photo by Kirk Irwin/Getty Images

Now that the Blue Jackets are officially out of the way, the Metropolitan Division final is what everyone knew it would be before the playoffs started. The Penguins and Capitals will start a blockbuster second-round series in Washington later this week.

The Pens have won five Stanley Cups, and they’ve gone through the Caps for every one of them. The Caps have won zero, with the Pens sucking out their blood consistently. Pittsburgh’s drive for a third Stanley Cup in a row runs through D.C. again, and the Capitals’ quest for playoff salvation is in oncoming traffic. Again.

The Capitals have lived a tortured playoff life in general, but nobody’s done more damage to their hopes and dreams than the Penguins.

The Pens and Caps have both been dominant regular-season teams in this era. In fact, they’ve been the dominant regular-season teams. Go back to 2008, the first year the Alex Ovechkin-led Capitals made the playoffs. The Penguins have been in the postseason every year since then, and Washington all but one. The Penguins have won a league-best 514 regular-season games since ‘07-’08. The Caps are next with 507.

In the same span, they’ve met three times in the playoffs. The Capitals have been the higher-seeded team all three times, and it hasn’t mattered any of those times. They’ve lost two Game 7s at home, either of the blowout or shutout variety. They’ve lost an overtime Game 6 to clinch another elimination, after they’d come back from 3-0 down to tie it late. The Penguins have their number, and everybody knows it, most of all the Capitals. (For longtime fans, this goes back years. The Pens are 9-1 in series against the Caps all-time, dating back to a five-game win in the Patrick Division semis in 1991.)

Whether the Penguins have been the Capitals’ foil or the Capitals have simply failed themselves is an open question. They’ve had other devastating playoff losses, and their fans can rattle off the names of their tormentors: Sidney Crosby three times, but also Joffrey Lupul in ‘08, Jaroslav Halak in ‘10, and Henrik Lundqvist on his own three occasions.

The Penguins have a special place in Capitals fans’ heads, though, and in the mainstream understanding of Washington’s playoff woes. Some of that’s because Crosby and Ovechkin entered the league together in 2005, and while they’ve both been generational superstars, only one of them has won in the springtime. Russian national teammates Evgeni Malkin and Ovechkin have had a more heated personal history that’s added to the zest:

The Capitals won’t say what everyone else is thinking.

The Penguins’ three series wins in the Crosby-Ovechkin era came in 2009, 2016, and 2017, always in the second round, always when Washington had home-ice advantage, and always a couple of weeks before the Penguins won the Stanley Cup.

The Capitals will field a bombardment of media questions about those parallels in the next few days. They will say, basically, “We’re not thinking about what happened last year, or the year before that, or all those years before that.” They won’t say that there’s been some structural or imperceptible thing that’s kept them from beating this team before.

The Capitals shouldn’t be thinking about the past. The past has been really bad to them. Only a few players are left on each team from the long-ago ‘09 series, but both teams’ cores are similar to what they’ve been in the meetings the last two years. The more the Capitals think about how they finished five points ahead of the Penguins and beat them two of four times this year, and the less they think about repeated playoff failures, the better.

None of this should matter. They’re evenly matched this year, as they’ve been on the cusp of all their other playoff meetings. But the Capitals have combusted at the wrong moment against the Penguins so many times that they won’t prove they’re over it until they win a series against them. When they came back from a 3-1 series deficit to force a Game 7 in D.C. last year, it seemed like that might be the moment. Then they got shut out by the Penguins’ (talented) backup goaltender, and their time in the wilderness continued.

If it’s not now for these Capitals, it’s not clear when it will be.

The Penguins haven’t been that much better than the Capitals over the years, save for the pesky point that Crosby’s guys have won all these series and all these Cups. There’s parity in the series again this year, and Malkin’s iffy health — he missed the last game of the first round — might give the Capitals a significant advantage. They have a chance like always.

The Capitals haven’t overhauled their roster after previous disappointments at the Penguins’ hands, and their key contributors except John Carlson are all under contract beyond this year. But three losses to a bitter rival in three years is a lot, and the core the Capitals built around Ovechkin isn’t getting younger. There’s only so much time to get over this hump.