By Will Graves, The Associated Press
October 12, 2016
PITTSBURGH, PA - JUNE 15: Sidney Crosby #87 of the Pittsburgh Penguins celebrates during the Victory Parade and Rally on June 15, 2016 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
The Pittsburgh Penguins playtime with the Stanley Cup is over, the names that led the franchise to its fourth title last spring forever etched onto their sport's most prized possession. The confetti from the celebratory downtown parade long since swept up. The glittering championship rings have been handed out too.
The final bit of pomp comes on Thursday night, when the 2015-16 Stanley Cup banner is raised to the rafters at newly renamed PPG Paints Arena ahead of the season opener against Washington. It will provide one last moment of reflection on a remarkable six-month stretch in which the Penguins morphed from uninspired to unstoppable under coach Mike Sullivan.
Then the puck will drop. The game will begin. And the quest will start anew.
"We're all excited to get the regular season underway and start this new challenge," Sullivan said. "We're all ready for training camp to be over and we can move into the next phase of our next season ... I'm sure there'll be butterflies for everybody."
What there won't be, at least on the ice, is Sidney Crosby. Pittsburgh's captain skated Wednesday and briefly participated in practice in a non-contact jersey but remains out indefinitely while recovering from a concussion.
While admitting "it's a game you want to be a part of," the two-time MVP has no plans to rush back. He spent the better part of two seasons trying to get right following a concussion suffered in January, 2011 and learned pretty quickly trying to predict how his body would react is fruitless.
"I think I've spent more than enough time being in this situation," he said. "You have to be patient. You have to make sure you listen to your body. If you're ready you're ready and if you're not, don't take any chances."
'It'll sting a little'
If last season taught the Penguins anything, it's that there's time. They stumbled through the first two months before Sullivan was brought on to replace Mike Johnston, beginning a sprint to the Cup that included an upset of longtime rival Washington in the second round of the playoffs.
The defending Presidents' Trophy winners will get an up-close look at what they missed out on Thursday night. While goaltender Braden Holtby is more worried about staying focused during the long break between pre-game warmups and puck drop, his teammates will be thinking of what might have been.
"It'll sting a little," said defenceman Matt Niskanen, who left the Penguins in the summer of 2014 to sign with the Capitals. "It'll sting a little knowing that they beat us to get to their championship. I don't think we'll need that extra motivation, but it'll provide a little, I'm sure."
Washington general manager Brian MacLellan believes coach Barry Trotz and players will have "the right perspective" and believes it's fitting for the Capitals to start their season on the same sheet of ice where their bid for the franchise's Cup ended in six contentious games.
"That's where we want to be. We want to do that," MacLellan said. "It's not an easy thing to watch, but I think it's a good thing to watch."
Holtby said there's no bitterness toward the Penguins, only frustration for not playing well enough to win the series. Trying to bury another painful playoff exit, the Capitals hope facing the Penguins on opening night is a jumpstart.
"Someone had to be the team that was there when they raised the banner, so it might as well be us," centre Jay Beagle said. "Let's get it going right away. Don't ease into the season. Let's go right away."