The 44-year wait ended last Thursday night when the Washington Capitals won their first Stanley Cup. More than a first championship, it was a Cup that ended a long stretch of playoff underachievement. For a fan base that I consider very underrated—I lived near Baltimore for four years and was impressed with the level of Caps passion I saw in the area—this was a well-earned moment. Now let’s put it in some historical context.
The immediate takeaway is that the debate over who the best hockey player of the 21st century is now on in earnest. There are only two credible candidates for the unofficial honor, Washington’s Alex Ovechkin and Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby. The Caps’ playoff shortcomings—Ovechkin had never even made a conference final, much less won a Stanley Cup prior to this year—had always made it impossible to get the debate rolling.
But the problem with using the lack of a championship as the only criteria to knock a player is that once the ring is won, the entire case collapses. Alex Ovechkin is one of the great offensive hockey players of all-time. Unlike Crosby, Ovechkin did not benefit from having another world-class talent like Evgeni Malkin playing alongside him. And there’s also special value to a player leading a team to a historic breakthrough, like Ovechkin did this year with 15 playoff goals.
Before Crosby’s defenders go through the roof, his case has its own merits. Crosby is one of the great passers of all-time and there’s a strong case to be made that his defensive skills make him a superior two-way player. He’s still got three Stanley Cups. The bigger point here is that Crosby vs. Ovechkin is now a legitimate debate, not that the debate is in any way settled.
And that leads us to an even bigger point and it’s that the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins now have the hottest rivalry in professional sports. These Metropolitan Division powers have won hockey’s last three championships. They have, by far, the two best players of their generation. The division-based structure of the NHL playoffs makes it highly likely they’ll met in the postseason almost every year—indeed, they’ve met the last three years. Several years ago, a friend of mine who roots for the Caps, joked that when the schedule comes out before the season, they should just put Washington vs. Pittsburgh at the end, with a “TBA” next to where and when. That isn’t going to change.
Hockey doesn’t have the same cultural impact in America that the other major sports do, so Caps-Penguins won’t captivate the media in the same way as Red Sox-Yankees. The merits of Ovechkin and Crosby won’t be debated endlessly by Skip Bayless, Colin Cowherd and the rest of the talking heads. But for those who put the NHL on the same plane as the other pro leagues, Caps-Penguins is the rivalry leading the way.
Furthermore, fan bases that already detest each other are going to see that hit a fever pitch. Washington fans have always loathed Pittsburgh, with Penguin fans looking down their nose at the Caps. It was a dynamic similar to what the Red Sox and Yankees had prior to 2004. The Red Sox of that time and the Caps of today needed to show they were more than just a sparring partner who would go quietly when the time came. Penguin fans of today, like Yankee fans of fourteen years ago, have now been given reason to amp up the animosity.