Had a casual fan tuned in Wednesday night to see the way Pittsburgh and Boston were going at it, they might have mistaken the broadcast for a playoff highlight reel from a spring long past.
But it was live. And the only things missing were the month-old beards.
In their first get-together since a memorable—albeit one-sided—four-game encounter five months ago in the Eastern Conference Final, the Penguins and Bruins carried on with 60 minutes more intense, grinding play interspersed with the occasional display of sublime skill.
As NBC play-by-play man Mike Emrick correctly intoned, “It’s a man’s game tonight.”
Pittsburgh ultimately left the CONSOL Energy Center crowd happy with a 3-2 victory, but perhaps more important than the two points in October are the strides the Penguins took toward leveling the ice surface with a team whose specter had haunted them all summer.
Wednesday’s hosts scored just four goals in four games during the June sweep, which sent Boston on to a second Stanley Cup Final in three years and left Pittsburgh’s coach, superstar and goaltender to answer myriad questions about their lingering postseason hangovers.
As it turned out, Dan Bylsma kept his job, Sidney Crosby regained his scoring touch and Marc-Andre Fleury returned to a starting role in the Penguins net in the 2013-14 regular-season’s opening month, but even a five-point Metropolitan Division lead didn’t yield satisfaction.
In fact, if you listened closely enough, when Pittsburgh expatriate Jarome Iginla scored with just 1:43 remaining to bring the Bruins back within a goal, the concern was nearly deafening.
The Boston net was empty, the six Bruins skaters were buzzing and a depleted Penguins defensive corps—minus Rob Scuderi (broken ankle) and with several others hobbled—was running to and fro in its zone looking precisely like a team about to fold once again.
Until it didn’t. And in (not) doing so, renewed a rivalry.
Instead, when Milan Lucic sent a cross-ice pass to the one-timing stick of David Krejci, a laser-sharp Fleury followed the puck across the slot, moved his 6’2”, 180-pound frame across the crease and was perfectly positioned to block down the shot just inside the left goal post.
Game. Set. Metamorphosis.
“That was last year, this is this,” Emrick said, “but there are long memories.”
They’ll play two more times in the interim, at Boston on Nov. 25 and again on Dec. 7.
And if the playoff positioning each team brought with it into Wednesday—Pittsburgh at No. 2, Boston at No. 7—somehow holds through April, the teams would add a first-round series to the budding enmity. Of course, chances are it’ll come much later in the springtime bracket, perhaps as each again serves as the other’s final hurdle before admission to the championship round.
Either way, if the spring encore is as good as the autumn opener, it’ll be worth the wait.