In closing out 2017, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced some real doubts about making the playoffs. They had lost three of their last four games, dropping to a mediocre 19-18-3 record.
Many headed into 2018 thinking “if any team can overcome this, it’s the Penguins,” and that turned out to be right. In defeating the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 on Saturday, they improved to 45-28-6, clinching a playoff berth.
This locks up their 12th consecutive trip to the postseason, and Pittsburgh’s dreams of a third consecutive Stanley Cup victory remain alive.
(That #3elieve bit looks better in the image than it does in hashtag form, agreed?)
[The 2018 NHL Stanley Cup playoffs begin April 11 on the networks of NBC]
Pittsburgh’s clinching win against the Canadiens embodied some of the better elements of the 2017-18 season.
Ouch, Niemi. Ouch.
They also received some top-notch saves from Matt Murray, which admittedly harkens back more to previous runs than this season, as Murray’s dealt with injuries and other struggles. The standout sequence came as Murray made some big saves on shorthanded chances, including one against Habs speedster Paul Byron:
Also fitting: Patric Hornqvist scoring a goal from a dirty area right near the net, and the usual suspects generating points. Phil Kessel beefed up his career-high to 87 points thanks to a goal and an assist, Evgeni Malkin collected two helpers, and Sidney Crosby nabbed an assist.
The Penguins stand in a solid position to grab at least a round of home-ice advantage with 96 points and three games left. They’re unlikely to catch the Capitals for the Metro title (Washington’s at 99 points with a game in hand on Pittsburgh), but the Pens hold a two-point edge on Columbus for second in the division.
Considering their 16-20-4 road record, the Penguins likely covet at least some home-ice more than others.
Still, when you look around the league at all of the injuries and then consider all the mileage accrued by Crosby, Malkin, Kessel, Kris Letang, and others, you wonder if Mike Sullivan might opt to give some of those workhorses a little time off down the stretch.
It’s a point worth considering, and it’s also remarkable that the Penguins enjoy the luxury to make such a choice with a week remaining considering how dire things seemed at times during the first half of this season.