NHL — As Pittsburgh Penguins raise their Stanley Cup banner, the Washington Capitals find their motivation
PITTSBURGH, Pa. — This banner. This arena. These two teams.
It’s not hard to imagine that this is where destiny meets disappointment. Or where hope meets reality.
The Pittsburgh Penguins’ raising of their 2015-16 Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of the newly named PPG Paints Arena Thursday night was first and foremost a testament to the team’s recent history. The team’s championship last June came after a tumultuous regular season that saw a coaching change and myriad questions about the team’s character all answered emphatically when they downed the San Jose Sharks in six games in the Stanley Cup finals.
For those reasons, it’s an achievement that will never be forgotten, the banner a constant reminder of that time. But the moment the banner stopped fluttering high above the Penguins’ logo, that shiny piece of history was quickly be placed aside in pursuit of something else historic: a second straight championship.
“We don’t need to think about [repeating],” GM Jim Rutherford said. “It’s hard to win one. We know that. We all know it’s hard to win two. But one of the things [coach Mike Sullivan] is continually saying is, ‘Let’s just play.'”
Let’s just play. And play they did Thursday night, with the Penguins ultimately coming out on top of a wildly entertaining affair 3-2 in a shootout to open their defense of the Cup.
The witness to the festivities — actually, they came out shortly after the banner had made its trip north to the arena rafters — the Washington Capitals couldn’t have been more perfectly chosen as the team to face the Pens on this festive night.
The Washington Capitals were watching the Pittsburgh Penguins, you just know it. Joe Sargent/NHLI/Getty Images
The Capitals and their captain, Alex Ovechkin, have played the foil to Sidney Crosby’s Penguins throughout the past decade, during which the Pens have won two championships. The Capitals are still looking for their first franchise Cup win.
“Whether or not the schedule makers did it on purpose, I don’t know,” said Capitals forward Justin Williams, a three-time Cup champion himself.
But he admitted there is a sour feeling being the other team on a night of banners and celebrations of past glories, especially when those glories came at the expense of the Capitals.
Last season, the Capitals roared through the regular season finishing 16 points ahead of the Penguins atop the Metropolitan Division and won the Presidents’ Trophy as the top team in the NHL. They won it every which way: heavy, fast, high-scoring, button-down. And when the two teams met in the second round, the first time in the postseason the two teams had met in the Crosby-Ovechkin era since an epic seven-game second-round series in 2009, there was a crackle at what might unfold.
Even though the Caps won Game 1, they seemed to chase the series throughout, ultimately bowing out in overtime in Game 6 in this very building.
So, cruel joke or not, it was indeed fitting the schedule makers gave the Capitals the task of waiting out the pregame ceremonies and cheers and appearance of the Stanley Cup one last time before the start of a new season.
Indeed, as much as there’s been a constant magnetism between the two teams since captains Ovechkin and Crosby, who missed Thursday’s game while recovering from a concussion, came into the league in 2005, there is much that binds them this season.
Both will have to guard against looking too far ahead and wanting too much to prove themselves before the time for proving is at hand.
“After we won it, it’s a little bit easier to not rush the process,” said Penguins center Eric Fehr, who might have the best perspective on the dynamic that exists between being a champion and being perpetually disappointed, having been a first-round draft pick of the Capitals in 2003.
“I think when you lose out, you’re extra hungry to try to force that getting into playoffs. I think, for us, we’re just taking it every game to trying to make sure we prove why we were the champions.”
No team has repeated as Stanley Cup champions since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings.
The team before that?
The Penguins, in 1991 and 1992.
Phil Bourque was a defenseman on those two Cup winners in the early 1990s. Few know this Pittsburgh team as well as Bourque — now an analyst on the team’s radio broadcasts — and in spite of the fact that the team will begin the 2016-17 season without Crosby, Bourque believes they might be as well-poised to repeat as champions as anyone since that Hall of Fame-laden team in Detroit almost two decades ago.
The leadership core is rock-solid, and they might have the best one-two goaltending tandem in the league with Marc-Andre Fleury, who was excellent making 39 saves Thursday while playoff sensation Matt Murray is recovering from a broken hand.
But there’s the group of hungry youths who were so critical to the Penguins’ playoff success in the form of Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and Brian Dumoulin.
“All the pieces are in place, from up top all the way down,” Bourque said.
But this smartly played, emotional game Thursday was also a reminder that the Caps have legitimate claims on defying history, mostly their own. There are so many attributes from top-end coaching and management to the defending Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who was outstanding Thursday, to perennial goal-scoring champion Ovechkin, to three-time Stanley Cup champion Williams, to emerging star Evgeny Kuznetsov and the inextinguishable Nicklas Backstrom.
If there is such a thing as destiny, is this time for Washington’s to reveal itself?
Ovechkin admitted a different emotion came with being on hand for the Pens’ banner raising.
“I wish we had this position in Washington, but we didn’t,” Ovechkin admitted. “Hope this year we’re going to do it. … I think it’s time for us.”
Veteran NHLer Mike Rupp likewise believes the Capitals are a team capable of finally breaking through and winning it all. But he cautioned that the challenge for them might be more mental than anything.
When a team has as dominating a season as the Capitals did last season, “so many times that’s your opportunity,” Rupp said. “Individually, that’s your year to win.”
But they didn’t. They’ll have to deal with that.
“I think everyone’s kind of tired of talking about what-ifs and ‘you guys were so good here, why can’t you do that,'” Williams said. “I think this season you just want to let the play speak for itself. Sure, we’ll have to answer questions. It’s just part of the history of what’s happened [in Washington], but I think just kind of focus on letting the play speak for itself. We love our team as we did last year, and I think we’re even better this year.”
And really, he’s right.
Apart from the not winning part, what’s not to love?
Just as there’s much to love about the Penguins and their bid to defy history and raise back-to-banners.
And watching these two powerful teams trade chances Thursday night, it was hard not to imagine that at some point next spring that their destinies will once again be intertwined.