For the third consecutive year, the Washington Capitals will hang a Metropolitan Division Champions banner from the rafters.
The Pittsburgh Penguins hope they, too, will celebrate a three-peat this spring, but one involving a large piece of silver drinkware. That’s why they were thinking bigger-picture Sunday night, after Washington clinched the division on Pittsburgh ice in captain Alex Ovechkin’s 1,000th career game.
“It is what it is,” goalie Matt Murray shrugged.
“We never win the division; it’s not surprise,” Evgeni Malkin said. “And we’re fine.”
“I haven’t really given it much thought, to be honest with you,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “We’re in this for the ultimate goal. We’re trying to take each game as it comes; we’re not really focused on anything other than that one game right in front of us, trying to become the best team we can become.”
It helped that the Penguins felt they had played well in the 3-1 loss. They outshot the Caps, 37-34, and their league-best power play generated plenty of chances in its five attempts.
“That’s probably as good as our power play has looked in the last month; we just didn’t score,” Sullivan said. “We generated a significant amount of scoring chances. Grade A’s. If one or two of them go in the net, it’s a different game.
“You can’t always control whether the puck goes in the net for you. You can only control the process, the decision-making, the execution, the work ethic. And I thought it was all there.”
Also there was passion from Malkin, the league’s top skater since Jan. 1 (28G, 32A, 60P). You could make a pretty strong case for him being the Penguins’ emotional leader, too.
With 3:45 remaining, Malkin set up Patric Hornqvist for Pittsburgh’s lone goal of the contest. As the Penguins pressed for more, Malkin and Washington’s T.J. Oshie got involved in a scrum that was escalating toward a fight. Then the Capitals’ Evgeny Kuznetsov inserted himself into the conversation from the bench, and Malkin blew up.
“I don’t know why he started speaking to me in Russian,” Malkin said. “I don’t like it. You’re not on the ice; it’s my problem. You can’t speak with me if you sit on bench. I’m busy. I think it’s not right.”
Malkin was shown the door and had to be restrained by an official on his way out.
“We send message, like we’re ready to play [them] in playoffs, maybe second round,” Malkin said. “I think we have great game, but I’m glad what we show last three minutes. We not stop playing; we show we’re ready to play if we meet each other in the playoffs.”
The Penguins have shown more determination and resilience in their game as a whole as they’ve gotten closer to the postseason. They were a bottom-half team at No. 19 overall (19-17-3) on Dec. 31, but have been top-four (26-11-3) since the calendar flipped to 2018.
“Since then I think we’ve been playing good hockey, and we’ve been improving every game,” Hornqvist said. “Now, knowing you’re in the playoffs, you know what’s in front of you. It’s a long road ahead and anything can happen.”
Pittsburgh can’t win the division, but they’ve clinched their playoff spot. Now home ice in the first round, and potentially beyond, is up for grabs.
The Penguins have reason to want to play at PPG Paints Arena as much as possible. They’re 17-2-1 in their last 20 at home, and their 29 home wins (29-9-2) top the Eastern Conference. On the road, they’ve gone under .500 with a 16-20-4 record.
Thursday’s matchup in Columbus, a possible first-round playoff opponent, might well be where home ice is decided.
“That’s going to be huge,” Hornqvist said. “Looking back at our playoff rounds recently, every time you have home ice, it feels like you have an advantage.”
“We want to beat Columbus; that’s our mindset,” Carl Hagelin said. “We want to end on the right note, and we’re going to bring it all.”
Then they’ll turn the page to the games that matter most, and a time of year where the Penguins have often elevated their play to another level.
“It’s not perfect every season,” Malkin said. “Every time, we work hard. It’s a long season right now. The last two years, we played so many games, and we still fight. We’re not winning a lot this year, but we’re still in. We understand it doesn’t matter what place [you finish]; it’s a new game.
“We’re happy we’re in playoffs. Now we need to win and start at home. It doesn’t matter against who.”