When the Washington Capitals faced the New York Islanders in the playoffs five years in a row in the 1980s, players knew everything.
They knew where Mike Bossy loved to shoot from, that Bob Nystrom was going to run them over and that they’d better watch out for Denis Potvin in the neutral zone.
“We became so used to one another we were expected to play the Islanders in the playoffs,” former Capitals winger Craig Laughlin said. “At some point, we always knew we were going to play them.”
It’s starting to feel that way now for the Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, who are meeting in the second round of the playoffs for the third consecutive year. Two teams playing each other over and over again in the post-season is a common theme in NHL history, especially when 16 of the 21 teams faced off in a divisional format similar to what has been in place since 2014 and is responsible for Capitals-Penguins III.
The Capitals faced the New York Rangers from 2011-13 and the Chicago Blackhawks played the Vancouver Canucks from 2009-11. Hockey has changed plenty since the Boston Bruins and Montreal Canadiens played series seven years in a row from 1984-90, but all that familiarity still breeds a whole lot of contempt.
“For the players, it’s more difficult,” said former Edmonton defenceman Kevin Lowe, whose Oilers faced Winnipeg three playoffs in a row from 1983-85. “The body checks are heavier, the cross-checks are harder, the slashes behind the play are harder.”
Lowe doesn’t think there are any advantages to players seeing the same opponent over and over again in the playoffs. Even on a Stanley Cup-champion team in Edmonton, there was always pressure to beat the Jets because they had done it in previous years.
Seeing the Penguins beat the Capitals on the way to the Cup the past two years, Lowe believes the stronger motivation belongs to Washington.
“They’ve made their life miserable, so that amps them up more,” Lowe said. “There’s no real advantage to the team that’s winning those years because you know every year’s different and you thought, ‘Oh, we can beat these guys because we beat them before.’ It’s a new set of circumstances every time you play.”
Former Philadelphia defenceman Brad Marsh recalled similar circumstances when the Flyers faced the Rangers in the playoffs in the ’80s. New York was often dozens of points back in the standings and yet won their series sometimes.
Players also changed teams less frequently back then, so the series felt like the continuation of a never-ending rivalry that began each fall in the preseason and was renewed in the playoffs.
“You certainly develop a hate for the team a little quicker because you’ve played them so many times in the regular season leading into the playoffs, and if you play them year after year, it certainly does give you extra motivation not to lose to them again,” Marsh said. “You did know how each player played or what their strengths or weaknesses were.”
By now, Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin said he and his teammates know “pretty much everything” about the Penguins, just like they did about the Rangers a few years ago. Coach Barry Trotz joked there was “less scouting, shorter days” before acknowledging, “We’ll be looking for those little edges you can get when you start playing teams multiple times.”
Even back in Laughlin’s day, the scouting reports — printed out on paper — were extensive. When Marsh faced the Rangers, he knew how to defend certain players in front of the net and what to expect from an opponent’s stars.
Sometimes that’s a no brainer. The Capitals have to watch out for Sidney Crosby, the Penguins for Ovechkin and the 1980s Jets for Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier.
Rick Tocchet, who played with Marsh on the Flyers in the ’80s and was an assistant coach with Pittsburgh in 2016 and 2017, thinks repeatedly facing the same team brings out different aspects in players.
“If you were a skill guy, you’d probably go out of your way to hit a guy,” Tocchet said. “If you really were an aggressive-type player, you’d try to make sure you’d continue to be aggressive and be willing to hit their best players. When you play a team so many times you’re willing to go out of your comfort zone to win those games.”
Having an elite team like the Islanders and Oilers dynasties of the ’80s carried with it some pressure, but beating the same opponent repeatedly in the playoffs had one benefit.
“Knowing that there would be an element of doubt in there,” Lowe said. “If you get them down in a series and things are looking bleak where that element of doubt might creep in quicker for the team that hasn’t won. It takes a while before you can actually get an opponent to that position.”
The mental battle starts well before Game 1. Speaking from experience, Laughlin thought he and the Capitals could always go toe-to-toe with the Islanders. He figures that’s the only way to approach this kind of situation.
“You need that feeling that this is a new year, it’s a new season, it’s a new series and why can’t we win?” Laughlin said. “It is belief that you have a better team and a belief that you are playing better than them at the moment. I think that’s the only thing you can sort of feed off of is you have more belief in your game the way you’re playing now.”
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