They had just won their second of back-to-back Stanley Cups, becoming the first team since the 1997-98 Detroit Red Wings to repeat as NHL champions. That meant the club had played a lot of hockey in a two-year span - 213 combined regular- and postseason games, to be exact. And at times, all of that hockey, quite understandably, took its toll physically.
"During the late playoff run last year, I'd go out for 30 seconds and I'd like, 'oh my God, I'm exhausted,'" Ian Cole said. "And it never used to be like that. It's just like fatigue builds and builds and builds, and no matter how much you try to recover, no matter how much you try to do all the right things, there's still going to be that fatigue level there just from how long and how much you've been playing."
Though, that being said, the players know it's a situation that most other teams in the league would have loved to be a part of.
"It's better to be on the winning side of it than the losing side," pointed out Brian Dumoulin. "It's one thing where everyone is pretty much tired towards the end of the season, but what's a couple more weeks, you know?"
Once the Pens cleaned out their lockers in mid-June following another series of epic team celebrations, the players headed home for a second short offseason, which they handled in different ways. Most of them opted to take about a month off - "the rest was definitely needed," Sidney Crosby said - while Cole said he only stayed out of the gym for about a week and a half before getting back to work.
After a couple of months, they all returned to Pittsburgh for training camp in mid-September. And following a few weeks of practices and preseason games, beginning tonight, the Penguins will watch the banner raise for that second of back-to-back Stanley Cups ahead of their game against St. Louis.
Once the banner is raised to the rafters and the puck drops, the Penguins will officially begin their quest to defend that title once more. They accomplished the repeat; now they're looking for a three-peat. The NHL hasn't had a team win the Stanley Cup in three consecutive seasons since the New York Islanders won four in a row from 1980-83.
To say it won't be easy is an understatement. But after talking with the players and coaches these last couple of weeks, there isn't any sense of that fatigue that surrounded them back in June. There truly is so much excitement surrounding this team as they get the season started.
The excitement began, quite simply, just from the players returning to start that actual preparation for a new season. While they didn't have as much time to train, that doesn't mean skating by themselves and working out alone didn't start getting old after a while.
"I would always get really bored over the summer," Cole said. "I loved working out, loved getting in shape, but not playing hockey games it gets so boring and so monotonous after a while. These two short summers have actually been kind of nice. Right as I start to get, 'man, this is actually kind of getting sort of boring now,' now I get right back in and the season's about to start."
That excitement continued to build with the guys just being around each other. As Dumoulin told me, "it's good coming back and seeing the guys. You miss them during the summer, so it's kind of refreshing to come back here and start the season again."
Within that locker room where the players reunited, motivation and hunger have been two hot topics from the media. Where does the hunger come from after winning the Stanley Cup two straight years? Where do they find the motivation to try and do it again? Crosby had a short but sweet answer to those questions.
"It's what you play for," Crosby said. "I think it's easy to have that."
What helps is the conclusion of the celebrations taking place this week, with the players' private ring ceremony on Monday and the banner raising tonight. "My hope is that these different experiences that we're able to enjoy here over the last week or so will fuel our passion to do it again," Sullivan said.
The handing out of the rings alone is incredibly special, but so is the atmosphere surrounding that act. Before the players actually received them, they watched both a blooper reel with funny moments from the season showing the camaraderie amongst the group, along with a video montage that showed their entire journey. Having seen it, reliving that incredible journey is something that gives you chills and honestly, makes you want to run through a wall after seeing it.
"I think it should inspire us to watch ourselves with some of the highlight reels they watched (Monday) night and the banner raising," Sullivan said. "For me, it's a real remembrance that it's all worth it. All the sacrifice and the commitment that you make to try to achieve the ultimate goal is worth it. And we've got a group that's capable."
That being said, while the Pens are aware that they can do something incredibly special this season if they do accomplish the three-peat - "I know we've won the last couple of years, but we have the chance to really make a legacy for this team," Bryan Rust told me - the sentiment amongst the group is that they can't necessarily let themselves think about such an achievement at this point.
"I'm not trying to think about that right now because we have a long season," Evgeni Malkin said. "We're just excited to start a new season."
"I'm just excited to get back and just play and play actual competitive hockey games," Cole echoed. "So yes, if that turns out to be a third Stanley Cup, awesome. We'll obviously reach that down the road. I'm excited, I'm ready to get going, as weird as it sounds."
And they understand that while there's plenty of enthusiasm right now, there's going to be times where that wanes. They're going to go through challenges in the schedule where, as Sullivan put it, "there's going to be certain weeks when we're tired, or it's a grind and we play a lot of games in a short period of time, or we have a lot of travel." Especially in those long winter months come January and February.
"These guys are hungry guys," Sullivan said. "They like to win. And they're willing to do what it takes. So I don't think any of us are looking at it like 'oh, this is a long, dreary season.' I just think these guys love playing hockey. They like coming to the rink every day and as their coaching staff, we like coming to the rink with them. I feel like we've never had a real job in our lives. We're doing something we love to do, and I think that's how we all look at it."
They also understand that they need to be smart and take care of themselves properly. As Cole said, everyone is professional and mature when it comes to their recovery and days off. Malkin (half) joked that they may need shorter practices and more time off. And they understand they need to have that short-term focus, which everyone is on the same page about.
"We're trying to control what we can each day," Sullivan said. "This is a daily endeavor and we can't lose sight of the fact that we've just got to keep our eye on that one game right in front of us, and that's (Wednesday) night."
The one emotion that this team does have consistently is confidence. And that starts with Crosby and Malkin.
After the 2016 Stanley Cup, the Pens returned virtually the same roster, which is almost unheard of in the salary-cap era. They can't say the same following the 2017 Stanley Cup. There were a lot of key departures, most notably Marc-Andre Fleury, Chris Kunitz, Matt Cullen, Nick Bonino, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey. And with Cullen and Bonino both gone, there's been so much discussion about the third- and fourth-line centers this training camp.
But the first- and second-line centers are two of the best players in the world, and a team that has Crosby and Malkin - who have shown absolutely zero signs of slowing down as they both enter their 30s - has a chance to win every year.
"I think those are two guys in the league that can win a game just on their own," Conor Sheary said. "If they have a big night where they can score three or four goals, they can really carry a team and that's a special thing to have in your room, when you have two of those guys."
But what's so great about this group is that while everyone acknowledged having Crosby and Malkin gives them a ton of confidence, they all pointed out that there's a lot of talent and a lot of players who know how to win surrounding those two as well. Which, as Dumoulin said, is calming.
"Phil (Kessel) is pretty damn good too, and we have (Kris Letang) back," Rust said. "And then there's just a lot of really good guys in this room. There are a lot of really good players. Just knowing the type of caliber of players we have, it breeds confidence."
"When you look down our roster at Phil, at 'Tanger' and in net with (Matt Murray), we have a really good core group of guys and that's the start of having success," Sheary echoed.
"That's the thing, it's not even those guys, it's our team," Cole said. "There's just so much confidence in our team. They're certainly a part of our team and they're awesome players, but it's not just them. It's (Justin Schultz), it's Olli (Maatta), it's Tanger. It's all these guys that contribute and have contributed to our team and certainly we lost some guys, but young guys step up every year. We have (Jake Guentzel), Rusty's going to be unbelievable this year. … We always have guys coming back and it's just exciting to be a part of. You're ready to get going and win more hockey games."
They believe in themselves, and they don't care if no one else does outside that locker room.
"We work every day towards (a three-peat)," Malkin said. "It's not easy, for sure. It's a hard league. But we understand nobody believed we'd win the second time. But probably nobody believes we'll win a third time. Within the team, we understand it's not easy but I think we believe in our group, our coaches."