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Penguins' perseverance led to playoff berth

Crosby, Murray, Guentzel helped smooth path to 13th consecutive postseason trip

by Wes Crosby / NHL.com Correspondent

The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 13th straight season, the longest active streak in the NHL.

The Penguins (44-26-11), who clinched a playoff berth with a 4-1 win against the Detroit Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena on Thursday, are in third place in the Metropolitan Division with 99 points through 81 games, two points behind the New York Islanders for second place and two ahead of the Carolina Hurricanes, who hold the first wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. Each has one regular-season game remaining.

Here are five reasons the Penguins clinched a playoff berth:

 

1. Crosby leading the way

In a season of ups and downs, Sidney Crosby provided dependability. The 31-year-old center and captain leads the Penguins with 98 points (34 goals, 64 assists) in 78 games, and has gone three straight games without a point twice.

Second-line center Evgeni Malkin, who returned Thursday after missing eight games with an upper-body injury, has had a relatively lackluster season with a team-leading 89 penalty minutes. The same could be said for forward Phil Kessel, who has six goals in his past 31 games.

With those two struggling, Crosby scored one goal in six straight games from Feb. 23-March 7, and had 31 points (10 goals, 21 assists) in 17 games from Feb. 9-March 14. The Penguins were 11-4-2 in those 17 games.

Crosby recently had cooled, with three assists in nine games, before he had a goal and two assists Thursday. That dip in production came with others, like rookie forward Teddy Blueger and veteran center Matt Cullen, stepping up, which Crosby welcomes.

"It's great to see everyone contribute," Crosby said. "That's what you need to win this time of year and moving forward."

 

2. Murray bouncing back

It took a few months for Matt Murray to look like the goalie who won the Stanley Cup twice as a rookie, in 2016 and 2017, but he returned to form during the second half of the regular season.

The season began with Murray allowing 11 goals on 65 shots in his first two starts before sustaining a concussion. He lost five in a row (0-4-1) from Oct. 30-Nov. 15 and was pulled after allowing three goals on 10 shots in the first period of a 6-4 loss to the Ottawa Senators on Nov. 17. He then was diagnosed with a lower-body injury that kept him out until Dec. 15.

Murray's season turned around when he returned. Since then, he is 25-9-4 with a 2.30 goals-against average, .931 save percentage and three shutouts. He won nine straight starts from Dec. 15-Jan. 11 and has allowed two goals or fewer in seven of his past nine starts.

"I think we're just trusting each other out there," Murray said. "We're playing the right way. Doing the little things. That's what it takes this time of year to win."

Video: DET@PIT: Murray denies Frk on the breakaway

 

3. Additions of McCann, Bjugstad

Among several trades the Penguins have made this season, acquiring forwards Jared McCann and Nick Bjugstad from the Florida Panthers on Feb. 1 had the most impact. They replaced forwards Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan, who went to the Panthers.

McCann has 16 points (11 goals, five assists) in 31 games since the trade, and Bjugstad has 13 points (eight goals, five assists). Brassard had 15 points (nine goals, six assists) in 40 games with Pittsburgh this season and Sheahan had nine points (seven goals, two assists) in 49 games.

Bjugstad has settled into the third-line center role, which Brassard previously held, when Malkin has been healthy. McCann has shown versatility, playing on the wing on each of the top three lines. Their introduction into the lineup has helped the Penguins score at least four goals in 13 of 31 games since Feb. 1.

"Our effort's always there," McCann said. "I feel like we sometimes get away from the systems a bit and it can cost us. But I feel like we're going in the right direction. We're playing well and we're winning games."

 

4. Guentzel stepping forward

Outside of Crosby, Jake Guentzel has been Pittsburgh's most consistent offensive threat.

The forward's 39 goals in 81 games this season surpassed his total of 38 in 122 games through his first two NHL seasons. He is third on the Penguins with 74 points (35 assists), up from 48 (22 goals, 26 assists) last season.

Those numbers can be attributed to Guentzel's partnership with Crosby on the first line. Penguins coach Mike Sullivan regularly juggled his lines this season, but mostly left Guentzel with Crosby.

"They're two guys that just think the game on a real high level," Sullivan said. "So they've developed that chemistry, and it just gets better with time. They're a dangerous tandem."

Video: DET@PIT: Guentzel cashes in on one-timer

 

5. Staying the course

The best way to describe the Penguins season would be consistently inconsistent, although they never seemed to let it spiral out of control.

It could have after they lost nine of 10 games (1-7-2) from Oct. 30-Nov. 19, but they won 18 of their next 25 (18-5-2). It could have again when they lost eight of 11 (3-7-1) from Jan. 12-Feb. 9, but they've had at least one point in 20 of their 26 games since (16-6-4).

On Dec. 3, Pittsburgh was sixth in the division, two points ahead of the last-place New Jersey Devils.

"We just have to find consistency," Crosby said that day. "We have to find ways to not hurt ourselves in games with big mistakes, and if we do make them, we have to find a way to bail each other out of those mistakes."

They're 34-16-6 since then, and their 74 points are two more than any other team in the division.

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