The 2018 season opener for the Pittsburgh featured a rematch of the bitter playoff rivalry between the Penguins and the Washington Capitals. However, it wasn’t the only time that the two teams had faced off in the season opener.
From 1990 to the present, the two teams have started the season on opposite sides of the face-off circle just three times — 1990, 2016, and 2018. Surprisingly, the 1990 game holds a unique NHL record. Kevin Stevens of the Penguins holds the title for most points by a single player in a season opener in the league. He racked up a staggering six points through three periods of play against the Capitals on that chilly night of October 5, 1990.
The game itself was a high-scoring, fast-paced affair with a final result of 7-4 in the Penguins’ favor. Stevens was responsible for two of those goals and four assists. All four of his assists and one of his goals came in the final period of the game, proving him to be a depth player up and down the ice, as the Penguins fired on all cylinders past the struggling Capitals. Mark Recchi scored two back-to-back goals in the third with assists on both by John Cullen and Kevin Stevens. While no footage of this particular game exists on YouTube, Stevens did notch an assist (along with Cullen) on Recchi’s goal against the Capitals in their next game that November and there is a clip of that:
Stevens’ performance in the first game of October was a sign of his drive for the rest of the season. He finished fourth on the team in scoring during the 1990-91 season with 40 goals and 46 assists for a total of 86 points. He continued that tenacious presence on the ice through the playoffs with 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points as the Penguins cruised to their first ever Stanley Cup in May 1991. Stevens was also the first player on the team to record a hat trick in the regular season against the Quebec Nordiques on October 25.
During the season opener on October 5, Stevens also opened the scoring for the season at 4:58 in the first period with his first goal of the night. He finished the night with a plus-4 rating and two goals on four shots for a conversion rate of 50-percent. Despite a high number of penalty minutes (38) by both teams, Stevens managed to avoid a trip to the penalty box, unlike a large portion of his teammates.
While no fights were recorded for the October 5 game, there was no love lost between the teams, as a total of 38 PIM were recorded between the two teams during the season opener. While it’s nowhere near the 233 PIM from 1982, 18 penalty minutes for the Penguins and 20 for the Capitals was still a high number for the first game of the season. The majority of the calls were roughing, especially in the third period as the score differential lengthened and the Capitals grew more frustrated. Holding, hooking, interference, high sticking, tripping, boarding, slashing, and one double minor for spearing (ouch) were all recorded throughout the game as well. Clearly, the Penguins-Capitals rivalry was alive and well even before their back-to-back conference final matchups in the seasons to come.
While Stevens was undoubtedly the first star of the night for the Penguins, several other teammates also stood out. John Cullen was right behind Stevens in points with five assists for the Penguins and ended the night with a plus/minus rating of plus-4. Mark Recchi had a shot percentage of 100-percent thanks to scoring two goals on only two shots. While Tom Barrasso recorded a .833 save percentage, he blocked 20 of 24 shots by the Capitals to give the Penguins the edge at the end of the night.
The Capitals had more of a mixed bag by the end of the game. Kelly Miller and Peter Zezel had shot percentages of 50-percent and 100-percent respectively with a goal apiece. However, Dino Ciccarelli, Joel Quenneville (yes, that Joel Quenneville), and Zezel all had a minus-3 rating by the final whistle. Mike Liut had what could only be described as a nightmare night in the net with a save percentage of .759 and only 22 blocked shots of 29 by the Penguins.
The two teams would face one another six more times in the regular season. The Penguins came out with the better record of 3-2-1 before the playoffs. While they lost the first game of the Prince of Wales Conference Final to the Capitals, the Penguins rebounded to sweep the next four games on their way to their first Stanley Cup.
The game on October 5, 1990 was a bright star in a night sky filled with shooting stars of the good things to come. The Penguins’ roster was stacked with supernova talent in the form of Phil Borque, Mark Recchi, Kevin Stevens, Jaromir Jagr, Ulf Samuelsson, Paul Coffey, with a young Mario Lemieux as their captain. The team finished the season at the top of the Patrick Division with 88 points, while the Capitals finished third with 81 points. The first two points of that 88 for the Penguins came from a fraught 60 minutes riddled with penalties and goals with Stevens shining bright amongst his team with seven points. His NHL record still stands to this day.