For two decades now, good (and occasionally great) NHL teams have tried and failed to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships. The Chicago Blackhawks won three titles in a six-year span between 2010 and 2015, but could never repeat. The Los Angeles Kings won two out of three in 2012 and 2014, but ran out of miracles in that in-between year.
Whatever the cause – the schedule, the salary cap, the weariness associated with the Stanley Cup hangover – no NHL team since the 1997 and 1998 Detroit Red Wings has followed up a championship year with a title defence.
The NHL has frequently been a league of dynasties. More recently, it has featured a succession of championship teams that were one and done.
But the Stanley Cup defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins moved ever closer to reversing that narrative Thursday night with a crushing 6-0 victory over the visiting Nashville Predators.
The Penguins now lead the best-of-seven Stanley Cup final series 3-2 and are within one victory of defending the title they won a year ago.
Led by another dominating virtuoso performance from team captain Sidney Crosby, the Penguins scored three goals on nine-first period shots to chase Nashville starting goaltender Pekka Rinne and then won the game going away.
Crosby set the tone on the first shift when he broke into the clear in the opening minute and rattled a shot off the post as he was being pulled to the ice by Predators' defenceman Ryan Ellis.
With Ellis in the penalty box, the Penguins snapped a lengthy drought on the power play, with Justin Schultz filtering a long shot from the point through traffic that beat Rinne.
Only 91 seconds had ticked off the clock and the rout was already on.
Crosby set up three of the first five Penguins' goals, got into a wrestling match with P.K. Subban that set the stage for Evgeni Malkin's back-breaking goal and also heaved a water bottle onto the ice to protest a slash on teammate Chris Kunitz from Predators' defenceman Mattias Ekholm.
Crosby was everywhere, in the midst of the fray, at a moment when the Penguins needed his leadership to reverse a two-game slide, in which the Predators ran them out of the rink in consecutive games at their home, the Bridgestone Arena. Once again, he is the favourite to win the Conn Smythe trophy as the playoff's most valuable player.
Penguins goaltender Matt Murray earned the shutout, his second of the postseason, since replacing Marc-André Fleury in the third round.
Schultz, Bryan Rust, Malkin, Conor Sheary, Phil Kessel and Ron Hainsey scored the Pittsburgh goals.
As well, Penguins' rookie Jake Guentzel earned an assist on Sheary's goal, his 21st point of the playoffs. That tied him with Dino Ciccarelli (Minnesota North Stars, 1981) and Ville Leino (Philadelphia Flyers, 2010) for the most points by a rookie in an NHL playoff season.
Rust's goal 6:43 into the opening period, on a great backhander into the top corner, came off a feed from Kunitz and gave Pittsburgh an early two-goal cushion.
But the dagger came with 11 seconds remaining in the opening period. Kessel set up Malkin for a goal that came with the teams playing four aside, with Crosby in the penalty box after mugging his nemesis in the series, Subban.
But the referees saw the exchange as coincidental minors, That call infuriated Predators' coach Peter Laviolette, who then took a calculated risk and switched to backup goaltender Juuse Saros for the start of the second, after Rinne surrendered three goals on nine shots.
Laviolette was trying to reverse the momentum, but his decision backfired, when Crosby found Sheary open beside the net to extend Pittsburgh's lead to 4-0 just 1:19 into the second period.
Crosby also earned an assist on Kessel's goal, which gave the Penguins a five-goal lead.
Everything that followed from that moment on was just window-dressing, preparation for Sunday's sixth game, when the Stanley Cup will be in the Bridgestone Arena, there for the taking if Pittsburgh can find a way to earn a road victory.
Even after their impressive victory, the Penguins were clear that nothing has been won yet. In all five games of this series, the home team has emerged victorious – and for Pittsburgh, the win snapped a two-game losing streak which had appeared to tip the momentum in the series in favour of the underdog Predators.
Nashville has been practically unbeatable on home ice in the postseason and the Predators will once again be supported by a loud-and-proud crowd to lend energy and motivation.