PITTSBURGH, Pa. — This banner. This arena. These two teams.
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 [head 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 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 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 with playoff sensation Matt Murray recovering from a broken hand.
“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. So many attributes from top-end coaching and management to the defending Vezina Trophy winner Braden Holtby, who was outstanding Thursday, perennial goal-scoring champion Ovechkin, three-time Stanley Cup champion Williams, 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.