Thursday night's matchup between the Penguins and Washington Capitals didn't have the same high stakes as the previous three playoff series, but it was meaningful nonetheless.
The Capitals couldn't have arrived at Pittsburgh's PPG Paints Arena any higher coming off of the franchise's first-ever Stanley Cup championship and a 7-0 shellacking of Boston the night before in a championship banner-raising evening.
The Penguins, on the other hand, still have a bitter taste from being eliminated by Washington in six games last year after having successfully won their own back-to-back titles.
Before the contest, Kris Letang wanted to remind the NHL that even though the Capitals are the defending champions, the Penguins are still the No. 1 contender.
"We want to send a message that we're still there and still want to win more Stanley Cups," Letang said. "We want to come in with a chip on our shoulder and try to regain what we lost."
Thursday night's contest didn't crown the next Stanley Cup champion, but the Penguins landed the opening punch with a 7-6 overtime victory in a freewheeling affair.
Message delivered. Message received.
"We wanted to respond to our last season," said Letang, who was the game's No. 1 star after scoring two goals, including the overtime winner, and three points. "I don't think it mattered if it were them or another team."
I know what Letang means by saying it didn't matter if they played Washington or Florida, the Penguins wanted to start the season strong. But there's no doubt that it's always extra sweet defeating your arch nemesis.
"(The playoff loss) is still fresh in your mind," captain Sidney Crosby said. "We're both trying to do the same things. It's just who is going to do it better, who is going to execute better. Playing a team that you lost to, it's always a big game to start the season, against them it was probably a little bit more."
This heavyweight bout was everything as advertised. A back-and-forth battle where no lead was safe and fans were on a roller coaster of emotions. The game featured a combined 13 goals, 77 shots, six lead changes and frequent momentum swings.
Defense optional. Both teams came out swinging.
"For five minutes we were on top of them. For five minutes they were on top of us," said Letang, who tied Paul Coffey for the franchise's points leader (440) among defensemen on his winning tally. "It was hard to get momentum in this game."
The Penguins and Capitals lineups are stacked with depth and loaded with talent. There's a reason that over the last three years these two teams are at the top of the NHL in regular-season and postseason wins.
Names like Letang, Malkin, Guentzel, Brassard, Crosby, Kessel, Oshie, Ovechkin, Carlson, Backstrom and Kuznetsov found their way onto the scoresheet on Thursday. It was an offensive explosion - for better or worse.
"You're happy that you scored seven, but you can't expect to give up six and win too many games," Crosby said. "It's normal early to make those mistakes or have some lack of detail, but it's something you have to clean up quick. It's better to clean up when you've won."
Pittsburgh won the battle, but the contest could have gone either way. And it's pretty clear that the road to the Stanley Cup will likely feature a rematch between the two pinnacle franchises in the NHL.
Score the opening round to the Penguins, but there are many more to come before it's all said and done. A likely decisive showdown is setting up for April.