Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby have never missed the playoffs since they’ve been on the Penguins’ roster together, and they’re not going to start now.
After coming up short in their first attempt to clinch Tuesday in Detroit, the Penguins turned in a dominant, 4-1 performance over the Red Wings in the Pittsburgh half of a home-and-home Thursday, punching their ticket to the postseason for the 13th consecutive year.
That’s the longest streak in the NHL and second-longest in any of the major sports leagues, trailing only the San Antonio Spurs who just clinched a 22nd consecutive playoff berth in the NBA.
“It’s not easy,” Crosby said. “You can see it comes down to Game 81, and there’s a lot of things that happened over the course of the year. It’s a tight league and you’ve got to earn it. It’s a good feeling, but we’ve got a game left here and we’ve got to take advantage of that, get some points and get ready.”
“It really is [impressive] because it’s difficult to make the playoffs; it’s hard,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “There’s going to be good teams that don’t make the playoffs; every year there is. With the parity in the league it’s not an easy feat, year in and year out.
“I think the fact that this organization has had the longstanding success they’ve had is a reflection of their leadership and professionalism. They just do it right in my opinion, and it’s a privilege to work for this organization.”
The Penguins still have something to play for in Game 82 against the New York Rangers, who wrap up a rebuilding year with nothing more than the chance to play spoiler. Currently in third place in the Metro, Pittsburgh would open a first-round playoff series on the road against the New York Islanders. They could still edge out the Isles for second and open that series at home – or, in a worst-case scenario, they could drop to fourth and end up as a wild card, meeting the division-winning Washington Capitals on the road.
The Penguins got some good news Thursday as Malkin and their best defenseman, Kris Letang, returned to the lineup from injuries, making a particular impact on the power play where Pittsburgh went 2-for-4. They also got two more goals from Phil Kessel, who had gone without one at even-strength since Jan. 30 before scoring in Tuesday’s loss in Detroit. One of them was his 10th game-winner, which leads the NHL.
They’re still missing their best defensive defenseman, Brian Dumoulin, forward Zach Aston-Reese and depth defenseman Chad Ruhwedel, but all are skating and making progress. And if there’s one thing they’ve learned this year in the league’s top tier of most-injured teams, it’s how to play through adversity.
“Every year there’s challenges that teams go through that help shape the character of the team, and usually the adversities make a team better, stronger,” Sullivan said. “They prepare you for the next challenges you’re going to be faced with. Your ability to react the right way through all the ebbs and flows of the season goes a long way to dictate what kind of success you’re going to have – both as an individual player but, more importantly, as a group.
“We have a lot of conversations in this room about dealing with the adversities and the challenges and staying in the moment and not getting ahead of ourselves. We just believe in a short-term, short-sighted approach, because it’s the only way you can control the controllables to ultimately get to where you want to be. We can’t control in September and October where we’re going to be in April. All we can do is take advantage of the opportunity that’s in front of us on a given day.”
Now that they’ve earned their playoff spot, the opportunity, and the expectation, are no different than always. For this group, making the postseason is just the start of what they set out to do each year.
“I don’t expect less than [making the playoffs] with the roster we put every year,” Letang said. “With the quality of players like Geno [Malkin] and Phil and these guys, I think we should be in the playoffs every year. The expectations are high in this dressing room, and it’s not going to be different.”
“I think we’ve got a good team here,” Kessel said. “We’ll see who we play coming up, and we’ll give it our all.”