It wasn't easy, but the Pittsburgh Penguins are heading back to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
A coaching change and an early season slump for Sidney Crosby made for a difficult first half for the Penguins, but with a 5-0 win against the New York Islanders on Saturday, they clinched a berth for the 10th straight season.
The Penguins are on a five-game winning streak and have won 11 of 12 games. They passed the New York Rangers and are in second place in the Metropolitan Division.
"We've been talking for a few months now about becoming a difficult team to play against and what does that mean," Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. "I think right now, our guys are buying in. They believe in one another and they're playing hard."
Last season, the Penguins were the second wild card and lost in five games to the Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round. It was a struggle to make the playoffs, which they didn't do until the final day of the season. This season, it's different.
"Last year ... having to play into that final game [of the regular season] to get in, and having gone through what we have this year, it's nice to clinch for sure," Crosby said Saturday.
"There's always time's when you think it's going to be an uphill climb, but I don't think anyone expected to put as many together as we have here down the stretch, but we worked hard and we've earned it."
Here are five reasons the Penguins clinched:
1. Crosby shakes slump
Through 32 games, Crosby had six goals and 16 assists. Since then, he has been the elite goal-scorer fans are used to seeing over the past decade. Crosby has 26 goals and 33 assists (59 points) in his past 45 games, including separate 11- and 12-game point streaks.
Video: PIT@NYI: Crosby notches 600th career assist on PPG
Crosby also has managed to stay healthy, always a concern for him. He missed one game this season in December with a lower-body injury. He's also tied for the League-lead in game-winning goals, with eight.
It's no surprise the Penguins turned around their season when Crosby got going.
"I think he's doing the same things; he's going to the right areas and the puck is going in,'' linemate Chris Kunitz said after Crosby had a hat trick on Feb. 2."The confidence thing, obviously for everybody on the ice, when he gets going, gets everybody going."
2. Coaching change
The Penguins fired coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 13, two days after a 3-2 shootout loss to the Los Angeles Kings. Pittsburgh was 15-10-3 at the time. Johnston was replaced by Sullivan, who lost his first four games as coach but has guided the Penguins to a 30-11-5 record since. The Penguins haven't lost two straight games since Jan. 12-15 and haven't lost two straight in regulation since Dec. 18-19.
"From the first time he opened his mouth in his first team meeting, he made an impact, he made an impression," defenseman Ben Lovejoy told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on Dec. 25. "I can't tell you how positive, yet demanding, he's been, just in the short time he's been here.
"It could be easy to be negative, with how things have gone, but he's come in and he's done it with motivation and discipline and attention to detail and staying positive with a group that maybe didn't deserve it at all times."
3. Marc-Andre Fleury
Fleury is having another outstanding season. He's 34-17-6 with a 2.29 GAA, .921 save percentage and five shutouts. In addition to getting his 350th NHL win this season, Fleury arguably has been the Penguins MVP again. He has at least 30 wins in seven straight non-shortened seasons and has been the stabilizing force on the backend for Pittsburgh for most of the past 11 seasons.
Video: WSH@PIT: Fleury dives for early save after miscue
"It's pretty cool. I didn't know before the game it was coming up," Fleury said after his 350th win on March 11. "I was glad we got the win, the two points."
Fleury has been diagnosed with a concussion and his availability for the playoffs, which begin April 13, is unknown. He also had a concussion in December and missed eight games.
4. Phil Kessel and Kris Letang
Kessel, acquired in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs this offseason, didn't immediately click with the Penguins, but he has turned it on recently. He had six goals and 10 assists in March, including a five-point game on March 26 and a two-goal game on Thursday. Kessel has scored 20-plus goals in each of his past eight seasons.
"I think what probably stuck out today, and we know this all along, everybody looks at Phil as being a scorer, and his shot, which is really good, but I think what goes under the radar is how well he passes the puck," Sullivan said after a 7-2 win against the Red Wings on March 26. "He sees the ice pretty good ... I thought he made some really nice plays that set up some goals for us."
Letang has NHL career-highs in goals (16) and points (62). He has 25 power-play points and has been strong defensively.
Video: BUF@PIT: Kessel seals the win for the Penguins in SO
5. Ability to overcome injuries
Evgeni Malkin sustained an upper-body injury on March 11, projected to keep him out 6-8 weeks, but the Penguins haven't missed a beat. They're 10-1-0 since, making a charge up the standings. And that's just one instance. Pittsburgh has had numerous injuries, including to Fleury, Letang, defenseman Olli Maatta and forward Nick Bonino, but has managed to find ways to win.