By Michelle R. Martinelli
As if opening the 2016-17 season against the Penguins wasn’t going to be challenging enough, playing on the road in Pittsburgh on Thursday will throw salt at the Washington Capitals’ lingering wounds from last season.
The Penguins knocked the Caps out of the playoffs in the Eastern Conference Second Round on their way to a Stanley Cup. And now, the Caps will have to watch their rivals present their championship banner before the puck drops.
“I feel like it was no mistake,” Washington right winger TJ Oshie said of the schedule. “The NHL figured out when they were going to lower the banner, and they’re going to send the Capitals there.”
“It’s going to be intense, it’s going to be hard-hitting, they’re going to want to win on the night they raise the banner and we’re going to want to shut them out.”
As the Caps watch Pittsburgh celebrate its fourth championship, they’ll once again be reminded of how the Stanley Cup has always eluded them.
And after winning the Presidents’ Trophy and setting a franchise record for most season wins (56-18-8) last year, the weight of an early playoff exit was crushing.
“I think there’s a certain uneasy feeling that you didn’t accomplish what you wanted to,” coach Barry Trotz said Tuesday. “You’re not happy with yourself, you’re not happy with the end result last year and the only thing we can do is change it.”
Starting with a heated rematch and a chance to spoil the Pens’ celebratory night.
Goalie Braden Holtby said with Washington’s core team members returning, it will be easier to learn from last season’s mistakes as the group matured.
The Caps will be at full strength Thursday, but Pittsburgh will play without captain Sidney Crosby — who was diagnosed with a concussion on Monday — and forward Bryan Rust with an undisclosed injury.
While Holtby is looking at the season opener as just another game, wanting to win the first contest no matter what, others, like forward Marcus Johansson and defenseman Karl Alzner, said their motivation to win has been amplified given their opponent. It’s a chance to send a message that the Caps will be contenders once again.
“That’s perfect — I love it,” Johansson said. “It’s a great way to start. I think it was tough to have the season end [against Pittsburgh], but I think it’s great to start there this year and get going right out of the gates.”