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.