PITTSBURGH -- Although the game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday was the season opener for each team, it felt at times as if they were setting the tone for another Stanley Cup Playoff series.
With the teams going back and forth in an intense game that ended with the Penguins winning 3-2 in a shootout, it was difficult not to think these rivals probably will run into each other again next spring. Their 2016 Eastern Conference Second Round series ended with Penguins center Nick Bonino scoring in overtime of Game 6. On Thursday, Phil Kessel was the hero for the Penguins, scoring the deciding goal in the fourth round of the shootout.
"It's two very good teams," Pittsburgh center Evgeni Malkin said. "It's like last year in the playoffs. Each game was (decided by) one goal. But we play a lot against each other. We know each other very well."
The Penguins and Capitals face each other three more times during the regular season. After that, another postseason series seems inevitable.
Video: WSH@PIT: Kessel beats Holtby to win in a shootout
They are expected to again be two of the top teams in the NHL, as they were last season, when the Capitals had 120 points to finish first in the Eastern Conference (and first overall) and the Penguins had 104 to finish second in the conference. Because of the divisional playoff format, they met in the second round.
Pittsburgh advanced and went on to win the Stanley Cup for the fourth time; Washington had to watch and wonder again when it finally will be its turn.
The Capitals remained in the visiting locker room while the Penguins raised their Cup banner during a pregame ceremony Thursday. They did the same when they opened the 2013-14 season at United Center and the Chicago Blackhawks raised their Cup banner, but no one could blame them for not wanting to sit on the bench while the Penguins celebrated again a championship that came partly at their expense.
Although Capitals coach Barry Trotz said "the TV was on" in the locker room during the pregame ceremony and some players watched it, forward Andre Burakovsky said the players weren't paying attention.
Video: WSH@PIT: Penguins raise 2016 Stanley Cup banner
"We just focused on our game," Burakovsky said. "It's just a regular-season game for us. When we're in here, we don't really care what's going on out there. We're focusing on our game, and that's about it."
A reminder of these rivals' dislike for each other came 6:33 into the first period when Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby went behind the net to play the puck and was knocked over by Penguins right wing Tom Kuhnhackl. A scrum quickly ensued with Capitals defenseman John Carlson grabbing Kuhnhackl and Penguins forward Tom Sestito trying to come to his aid.
Center Lars Eller, who was making his Capitals debut after being acquired from the Montreal Canadiens at the 2016 NHL Draft, got into the action by latching on to Sestito, and Justin Williams also tried to get at Sestito.
Sestito and Capitals forward Tom Wilson dropped the gloves during another scrum at 8:54. Scrums like that were common throughout the game. One with 3.3 seconds remaining in the second period came after Malkin took an extra whack at Holtby while he was covering the puck at the post. Williams took offense and yanked Malkin down from behind by grabbing him around the neck.
Video: WSH@PIT: Malkin slips puck around Holtby for a lead
"Was I surprised with the physicality? No," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "The reason is because they're two good teams and I think they've established a rivalry. I think any time the Capitals and the Penguins meet, it's going to be a high-intense, physical, emotional game because it's two of the better teams in the League going at it."
The Capitals started fast with Burakovsky scoring 59 seconds in to grab the lead, but the Penguins responded with two goals in the second period. With captain and Conn Smythe Trophy winner Sidney Crosby out with a concussion, Malkin did what he often has done when Crosby has been injured in the past and elevated his game with a goal and an assist.
The Capitals made the mistake of leaving Malkin alone in front after a turnover by T.J. Oshie, and he made them pay by sliding a backhand in under Holtby to give the Penguins a 2-1 lead with 1:08 left in the second period.
Burakovksy answered with his second goal, beating Marc-Andre Fleury under the left arm from the slot 6:13 into the third to tie it 2-2. Fleury was the difference after that and finished with 39 saves, including six during the 3-on-3 overtime.
Video: WSH@PIT: Burakovsky's second goal ties game in 3rd
"That felt like a midseason game when you're in your positions and you pull one of those great wins off," said right wing Patric Hornqvist, who scored the Penguins' first goal. "We just stuck with it and found a way to win. That's what good teams do."
The Capitals have to wait for Nov. 16 at Verizon Center for their next shot at the Penguins. But that won't matter as much as if they meet in the playoffs again.
"Pittsburgh is a great team. It's always tough games to play against them," Burakovsky said. "They've been doing a really good job against us, but it's a lot of fun. I know we're going to play them a lot more, so next time we're going to be there with two points."