Separate and distinct from the scoreboard verdict, there was a disquieting vibe to Super Sunday’s matinee tilt between the Penguins and Capitals. I sat down low in Verizon Center for it, and I didn’t like the vibe at all.
This game is a special tradition on our hockey calendar. While there are a handful of other games this day, Pittsburgh and Washington own Super Bowl Sunday, and as such, NBC is sure to cover it. For almost a decade preceding today, this was also one of the league’s fiercest and most anticipated rivalries. But today didn’t feel like Caps-Pens of the recent past. Not at all.
Yes, there were again legions in black and gold sweaters descended upon Chinatown. Yes they were a boisterous lot at every Penguins tally. And did we ever hear from them when Chris Kunitz thrust and twisted a serrated dagger in the home club with just 8 seconds left, securing himself a hat trick. A cascade of caps — many adorned with the logos of Pittsburgh sports franchises — littered the Verizon Center ice sheet. It was a nauseating sight.
But I didn’t notice the bellicose volley of cheers between the fanbases that so well characterizes games between these teams in D.C. The home crowd early in this abbreviated season hasn’t had a great deal to cheer for, and that was again the case Sunday. And Penguins fans, far from preying upon the silence of the hosts, seemed to sit largely muted in their strong numbers. This was a game whose outcome wasn’t much in doubt in its leadup, and it played out that way, and fans from both sides seemed to reflect this sudden, rivalry-souring reality.
Suddenly there is a competitive chasm between the Capitals and Penguins, and it may stay that way a while. And this impacts any rivalry’s atmosphere.
I’ve long measured the general fitness of any Capitals club by its matchups versus Pittsburgh. There have been down years in Western PA to be sure, but they are far outnumbered by long stretches of robust competitiveness.Win against Pittsburgh generally, I believed, and you could feel real good about a Capitals club. I haven’t felt good about the Capitals since last spring. Sunday I walked out of the rink feeling that these Capitals could not defend their house against Pittsburgh, on this or any day. I also thought about the upcoming draft lottery.
About 10 years ago, both of these teams were cellar dwellers, rebuilding around high-profile young stars. The Penguins have already won a Cup with their core, and on paper they look to be strong again this season. Sunday they seemed to send a strong message that not only won’t the Capitals win a Cup any time soon, but that yet another rebuild may be in Washington’s offing.
I’d grown accustomed to enduring difficult bouts of Pens fans’ revelry on the streets of Chinatown and aboard Metro trains when their guys prevailed here. But I saw none of that Sunday. The game seemed to deliver an expected outcome, and inevitability of outcome is the bane of any rivalry. On Sunday, our fan foes in those wretched colors seemed with their relative stoicism and silence . . . to pity us.
Near the end of my train ride home my friend Michael up in Maine sent me a photo of kids skating the pond in Portland, Maine’s, Deering Oaks Park. The scene made me wish I’d spent my Sunday there. I’m growing weary of watching rebuilding hockey in Washington.