Corey Crawford said it was “pretty hard to watch.” Duncan Keith barely paid any attention. But Patrick Kane was watching. He’s always watching. Perhaps no player in the NHL pays more attention to the rest of the hockey world, or to hockey history, than Kane.
And as he watched last spring as the Pittsburgh Penguins did two things that the Hawks couldn’t do — beat the Nashville Predators and repeat as Stanley Cup champions — and equal the Hawks’ mark of three Cups in the salary-cap era, Kane wasn’t exactly thrilled for them.
“You’re almost kind of like rooting for them to lose, so they don’t catch you, you know?” Kane said. “But now that they’re there, we’ve got a lot of respect for those guys, not only individually but as a team, what they’ve been able to accomplish. Back-to-back Stanley Cups. It’s been almost 20 years since the last team did that. Pretty impressive. Throughout the regular season, you’ve always got an eye on that team, or what other players on that team are doing. It’s kind of a good rivalry where you’re watching each other.”
The Hawks and Penguins — who meet Thursday night at the United Center — aren’t rivals in the traditional sense. They play each other just twice a year, and haven’t met in the playoffs since the 1992 Stanley Cup Final. But they’re rivals in the historic sense. Since 2009, the Penguins have three Cups, and the Hawks have three Cups. The Kings have two, but have fallen out of perennial contention. The race for the most dominant team of the modern era is down to two.
And while hockey players incessantly talk about taking things one game at a time, legacies matter, too.
“That’s definitely a big competition,” Crawford said. “It’s something we want to do every year. We want to win and we want to be the team that has the most in this new era. It’s tied now. Maybe that gives us a little extra motivation, if we even needed that. It’s been fun winning, and just that feeling makes me want to do it again.”
In the Sidney Crosby era, the Penguins have won 19 playoff series, losing in the Stanley Cup Final in 2008 before winning it all in 2009. Over the next six seasons, they reached just one conference final, with three first-round exits. In the Jonathan Toews and Kane era, the Hawks have won 16 playoff series, twice losing in the conference final, with four first-round exits. Crosby’s been in the league two more years than Toews and Kane, so call it a wash.
But the Penguins have momentum. While Pittsburgh has been winning two straight Cups, the Hawks have endured two straight first-round losses. And the Hawks enter the 2017-18 season with a drastically revamped and unproven defense, while the Penguins are largely intact and a legitimate threat for the league’s first three-peat since the Islanders won four straight from 1980-83.
A tantalizing prospect, of course, would be for the Hawks and Penguins to meet again in about eight months, going head-to-head for Cup No. 4. But there’s an awfully long way to go before that dream matchup can happen. That road starts Thursday.
“It’s certainly impressive what they did the last two years, going back-to-back,” Patrick Sharp said. “We know what that’s like, defending the Stanley Cup. It’s difficult the second time around. So for them to win it again was pretty special, I’m sure, for them. Yeah, there’s competition [for] the guys that have three Cups in here. The organization prides itself on being the top in the league, and Pittsburgh’s the champs right now. I know it’s just the first game of 82, and hopefully a lot more in the playoffs. But whenever you see the Pens coming into town, it’s a big game. And hopefully they say the same about the Blackhawks.”