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Mike Sullivan insisted the Pittsburgh Penguins would take a minute to enjoy clinching their 15th straight playoff berth, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports.
The postgame routine following Thursday night's 5-4 overtime win against Washington that assured the Penguins of a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup went much like the postgame routine of the 32 victories this season that came before it. A quick talk from Sullivan. A brief moment to exhale. And that was it.
“I’m proud of the group for working as hard as they have to solidify a playoff spot, but certainly that’s not where it ends,” Sullivan said Friday. “This is where the real fun starts.”
It's the kind of “fun” in which the Penguins have become a fixture for a decade and a half. The kind of “fun” that will serve as the ultimate arbiter on how 2021 is judged. The kind of “fun” Pittsburgh seems ready for despite a series of injuries to high-profile players that have thrust unlikely contributors briefly into the spotlight.
Thirty different players have recorded at least one point for the Penguins this season. Twenty-five have scored a goal, including players like fourth-line forward Frederick Gaudreau, who picked up the fifth of his career in the victory over the Capitals that thrust Pittsburgh into a tie for first place in the hotly contested East Division.
The Penguins are in the mix with five games to go, even with star center Evgeni Malkin out since mid-March with a lower-body injury. Malkin's absence is one of several to high-profile players that have forced Sullivan to get creative putting together his lineups. Yet nearly everyone who has made it over the boards and onto the ice has found a way to contribute.
Rookie defenseman Pierre Olivier-Joseph was a revelation when the 21-year-old found himself pressed into action after injuries devastated the blue line in January. Undrafted forward Radim Zohorna — all 6-feet-6 of him — joined the likes of Hall of Fame owner Mario Lemieux when he found the back of the net on his first NHL shot in a victory over Buffalo last month.
Defenseman Mike Matheson — acquired in an offseason trade that sent two-time Stanley Cup winner Patric Hornqvist to Florida — credited the example set by Malkin, captain Sidney Crosby and defenseman Kris Letang.
“You don’t want to let them down,” Matheson said. "They make you raise your level to catch up to them.”
A level that's carried the trio to three Stanley Cup titles. A level all three know is required if they want to make a serious run at a fourth. The Penguins have been among the best teams in the NHL following a sluggish start. Pittsburgh started the season 5-5-1. Concerns rose about whether goaltender Tristan Jarry was ready to be the full-time starter after the team sent Stanley Cup champion Matt Murray to Ottawa. Malkin looked slow. The special teams were shoddy.
Not so much anymore. The Penguins are 28-10-2 over their last 40 games, showing a resilience that could serve them well when the playoffs begin in a couple of weeks. Their clincher was no different. Washington's Tom Wilson stunningly forced overtime when he beat Jarry with 14 seconds to go. No matter, Guentzel redirected the winner 2:11 into the extra session to pull Pittsburgh even with Washington for the top spot in the division.
Jarry, who is 10-1-1 in his last 13 appearances, was 11 years old the last time the Stanley Cup was contested without the Penguins.
“I think that’s a huge accomplishment for Pittsburgh, and it says a lot about the city and the teams they’ve put together,” he said.
The current group included. The franchise's postseason stays have been relatively brief since winning back-to-back Cups in 2016 and 2017. A second-round loss to Washington in 2018. A first-round sweep at the hands of the New York Islanders in 2019. A stunning qualifying round collapse against Montreal in the COVID-19 bubble last summer.
They revamped the coaching staff and retooled the roster, trying to recapture the speed that led them to those championships. They've flashed that speed at times, though they'll also have to become more comfortable playing the slower, sometimes bruising game that tends to pop up during the playoffs.
The Bruins pushed them around at times in a 3-1 loss on Tuesday. Washington threw its weight around on Thursday. To get out of the divisional rounds of the postseason, they'll have to beat one of those two teams. Maybe both.
Perhaps that's why the celebration was so muted. Sure, clinching was an important step. But it was just one.
“The natural state of mind as a player is you’re never really satisfied until you get to the ultimate goal,” Matheson said. "As much as it’s not a normal thing for me to come to the last week or two into the season having clinched a playoff spot, that’s a great feeling ... but we’re chasing a much bigger goal than just making the playoffs.”
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