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Capitals shaking underachiever tag, truly chasing Cup starts with getting by Penguins

The Capitals' awful track record against the Penguins in the post-season has haunted the franchise during its modern heyday. But Washington might be unstoppable if they can finally exorcise their Pittsburgh playoff demons.

When the Ottawa Senators were at their prime, they either couldn’t beat the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs or avoided playing them. And that’s why I believe there is not a single Stanley Cup championship banner for the modern-day Senators hanging in the Canadian Tire Centre or whatever they’re calling it this week.

During the heydays of Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, I had a theory about the Senators. And that was that they were never going to win a Stanley Cup until they exorcised their demons against the Leafs and defeated them in a playoff series, preferably decisively. If that happened, I believed they would have mowed down their playoff opponents in easy and rapid succession after that.

I get the same feeling about the Washington Capitals when it comes to their window of opportunity for winning a Cup and losing the tag as one of the league’s great all-time playoff underachievers. For this group to even think about hoisting the Stanley Cup, it must first oust the Penguins from the playoffs. And if that happens, watch out.

That is the backdrop as the Capitals open their series at home against the Penguins tomorrow night. Both in terms of recent and long-term history, this has been an absolute rout. As we all know, the Penguins have vanquished the Capitals each of the past two seasons and in 2009. The Penguins went on to win the Stanley Cup each time. Coincidence? Not a chance.

Of the 10 times the Capitals and Penguins have squared off in the playoffs, it has been a complete and total rout in favor of the Penguins. Not even close. The Capitals have won one measly playoff series against Pittsburgh, in six games in 1994. The Penguins have defeated the Capitals as favorites. They’ve defeated them as underdogs. They’ve done it at home and on the road, they’ve prevailed in overtime, they’ve routed the Capitals in deciding games and have had their star players step up for them while the Capitals best players have watched in frustration, able to accomplish next to nothing.

In fact, the matchups between these two specific teams have gone a long way toward defining the careers of the two franchise players on these teams. Both Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin will ultimately go down as two of the greatest players of all-time. There is no doubt about that. Regardless of what Crosby accomplishes the rest of his career, he will be remembered for how he delivered his best performances in the biggest games, both in the playoffs and on the international stage. And regardless of what Ovechkin accomplishes the rest of his career, he will always be found wanting unless he can somehow be part of a team that gets over the playoff underachiever hump.

There is a lot to suggest that this could finally be the year the Capitals actually do make that leap. They are not burdened by expectation or the Presidents’ Trophy curse. They actually displayed some playoff fortitude in Round 1 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, spotting Columbus to a 2-0 lead after dropping the first two games on home ice, then coming back to win Game 3 in overtime. Ovechkin has been an absolute terror and seems on a mission. Braden Holtby, shunned for the first two games of the first round, came in and saved both the Capitals’ season and perhaps coach Barry Trotz’s job. And John Carlson, pending UFA, is playing like a superstar on defense. It’s strange how the Capitals went out and got Kevin Shattenkirk at the trade deadline last season because they thought they needed a No. 1 defenseman, when there was one right there in plain sight.

But the thing about all of that is it doesn’t matter. Whether the Capitals stumbled in the dark through Round 1 the way they did a year ago against the Maple Leafs – then celebrated that win as though they had won a Stanley Cup – or found their game and are on a roll, it makes nary a difference. Nothing, absolutely nothing, changes with this team until it defeats the Penguins in a playoff series. Until that happens, they’re still the underachieving Capitals and still deserve to be regarded as such. There are a lot of reasons to pick the Capitals to lose again, the most reasonable of which is that they’ve made a habit of doing it. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me a thousand times and we stop picking you to ever win anything. (This is the sole reason I’m picking the Penguins at this point. Until the Capitals win something, I will pick them to lose every playoff series they play.)

It’s now up to the Capitals to prove the hockey world wrong. And that’s a huge shift from proving to everyone you’re actually equal to the hype and the promise. If that happens, and it’s an enormous if, there might be no stopping them.

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