COLUMBUS, Ohio -- For the third straight postseason, it'll be the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Metropolitan Division semifinals.
"Here we go," center Nicklas Backstrom declared after the Capitals eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in a 6-3 Game 6 victory on Monday night. The Penguins also won in six games, eliminating the Philadelphia Flyers on Sunday.
Backstrom was asked whether the Capitals enter this showdown as the underdog despite winning the Metro Division.
"Yeah, but it doesn't really matter if we're underdogs or not," he said. "They won the Stanley Cup two years in a row. Good for them. We're going to play in the second round against them. It'll be fun."
Pittsburgh and Washington have met in the playoffs 10 times in their respective franchise histories. The Penguins have won nine of those series, four of them in seven games. The Penguins have never won a Stanley Cup without beating the Capitals in the playoffs during their run, including all three Stanley Cups of the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era.
In 2009, the Penguins won an epic seven-game series that featured the famous Game 2 that saw Alex Ovechkin and Crosby both tally hat tricks. The Penguins captured Game 7 in D.C., 6-2. In 2016, the Penguins ousted the Capitals in six games after losing Game 1 on the road in overtime. In 2017, the rivals went seven games again, with the Penguins winning Game 7 at Washington, 2-0.
The Capitals will have home-ice advantage again for this edition of the postseason rivalry. They'll have Ovechkin and Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov and goalie Braden Holtby, as they have in the past two playoff battles. Which leads to the obvious question: How can this time be different for the Capitals, when so much seems eerily familiar?
"We knew that chances were [good] we'd have to go through them at some point. We've prepared well. We've used the year to better our team," said Holtby, who was spectacular in making 35 saves in Game 6.
Winger T.J. Oshie believes that with Holtby locked in, and the defense improved in front of him, the result can be different this time.
"Defensively, we're a little more aware of the correct reads. Defensively, we're a little more responsible," Oshie said. "I think in years past, our lineup was pretty stacked. It seemed like we kinda got away with good players making reads, but at times Pittsburgh can exploit that when you're not sharp in your own end, with how they see the ice. I think we're a little more responsible in our own end, and hopefully that can deter their offense.
"They've ended our season the last two years. If both teams bring their A-game, I think it's going to be a long grind of a series. That's the way we want it. We want to take down the best."
In the past two seasons, Washington and Pittsburgh were set on a collision course in the second round thanks to the NHL's bracketed playoff format, something that Capitals coach Barry Trotz lamented at the NHL All-Star Game earlier this season.
"I think the format has worked well, and I'm not going to go against the league, but when you win a Presidents' Trophy, you shouldn't have to play the second-[best] team in the second round," Trotz said.
If the Stanley Cup playoffs were reseeded after the first round, the Penguins (100 points) would have faced the Tampa Bay Lightning (113 points), while the Capitals (105 points) would have faced the winner of the Boston Bruins (112 points) and Toronto Maple Leafs (105 points) series.
But that's not the format. The bracket says it's Capitals vs. Penguins, again. And Ovechkin said he's ready.
"I can't wait," said Ovechkin, who had two goals in the elimination game against Columbus. "We believe in each other. No matter what happens, we have to stick to the plan, stick to the system. If we play the right way, we'll find success."