Lucky 13: Penguins survive rocky path to playoff spot
PITTSBURGH (AP) — Erik Gudbranson didn’t want to be “that guy,” the one who whooped it up after the Pittsburgh Penguins locked down a playoff spot for the 13th straight year with a win over the Detroit Red Wings on Thursday night.
The veteran defenseman knows seasons in Pittsburgh are judged solely on whether they end with a mid-June parade through downtown, and that securing one of the 16 spots in the Stanley Cup tournament is just one small step in the process. He’s well aware many of the guys that sit next to him on the bench have never known what it’s like to trade in their hockey sticks for golf clubs in early April.
So Gudbranson — acquired in a trade deadline deal with Vancouver — played it cool. At least until he got home. Only while on the phone talking to his mom did he celebrate reaching the playoffs for just the third time in his eight-year career.
“I was like, ‘Sweet, this is unreal. I’m really pumped about this,’” he said with a laugh.
It was much the same for forward Nick Bjugstad, who reached the postseason just once during six seasons in Florida.
Brought over along with forward Jared McCann in a deal with Florida on Feb. 1, Bjugstad played a critical role in the Penguins emerging from an early funk to extend a playoff run that started in 2007, the second-longest active streak in North American professional sports behind the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs, who are at 22 years and counting.
“I’m sure (my teammates), it’s pretty standard for them,” Bjugstad said. “For (new guys), it’s great and exciting for us to come into a team that put themselves in a position.”
A position that looked iffy at times over the past six months. Pittsburgh found itself tied for last in the Eastern Conference in mid-November, endured significant injuries to center Evgeni Malkin, defensemen Kris Letang, Olli Maatta and Justin Schultz along with goaltender Matt Murray and saw forward Phil Kessel and Patric Hornqvist — both key parts of the core that led the franchise to back-to-back championships in 2016 and 2017 — go through extended scoring droughts.
Yet there they were on Thursday night, broadly smiling in the postgame handshake line after assuring themselves of a chance to play beyond Saturday’s regular-season finale against the New York Rangers. Even captain Sidney Crosby, who has his name etched on the Stanley Cup three times, took a moment to drink it in.
“I think I appreciate it more now than I did in the past just knowing how difficult it is to get there, how much fun it is to play in the playoffs and what those games mean,” Crosby said. “I think everybody is different. It’s an expectation but at the same time experience doesn’t guarantee anything.”
One of the reasons Crosby joined in an optional practice on Friday. The Eastern Conference is so jammed heading into the 82nd game that the Penguins could wind up as high as second in the Metropolitan Division behind Washington or finish as the top wild card. They could start on home ice against the New York Islanders or find themselves on the road against rival Washington in the opening round.
The stakes are high, but as Bjugstad pointed out, they’ve been high for months. So don’t expect the players to waste time Saturday night glancing up at the scoreboard to get an early lead on their first playoff destination. It’s not exactly productive and ultimately they don’t really care. They’re in. For now, that’s enough.
“There’s a lot of that, I think speculation,” Bjugstad said. “And as players you’ve just got to kind of focus on your own game. I think for the most part we did a pretty good job here at the tail end of the season.”
Not that Pittsburgh really had a choice. The Penguins are 11-4-2 since March 1, allowing more than three goals just four times in that span by playing the kind of sound defense in their end that was hard to come by during the first five months of the season. The additions of Bjugstad, McCann and Gudbranson provided a welcome addition of fresh legs and a dash of grit.
The Penguins head to the playoffs with something akin to momentum and a chip of sorts on their shoulders. For long stretches they hardly looked like the team that’s been among the perennial Stanley Cup favorites for more than a decade.
Yet here they are anyway, just like always. If anything, the early troubles Pittsburgh endured and ultimately overcame could make the Penguins a tough out when the conference quarterfinals start next week.
“We believe we’ve got a competitive group here, so it’s really a credit to the players,” coach Mike Sullivan said. “I told them that (Thursday night) because it’s a hard road to make the playoffs. We’ve accomplished our first goal but it’s not the ultimate goal. We’ve got to continue to push one another to get our games to another level, which is going to be required for us to continue to have success.”