When the Penguins clinched their franchise record 12th consecutive playoff berth on Saturday against Montreal, they acknowledged the significance of the accomplishment in the locker room after the game but didn't have much time to celebrate since they were hosting Washington on Sunday.
But now, a few days later, the Penguins' franchise centers had some time to reflect on just what it means to be officially competing for a third straight Stanley Cup after practice at PPG Paints Arena.
"It's huge," Evgeni Malkin said. "We understand we have a great team. We understand it's not just the team. It's the coaches, it's the organization. Everyone here comes in to practice, comes in to this building, it's like we're all together. Everyone works to win. The last two years give us so much confidence, I think. We have a great team and time to win. It's time to be in history."
Malkin never once doubted that the Penguins would be in this position, despite the key departures during the offseason and the struggles they experienced during the first half of the year that had others outside the dressing room questioning if they'd be able to defend their back-to-back titles.
"I will always believe in my team," he said. "I will always believe in this group. I see these guys every day and we're still hungry. We talk a lot about this year, everyone's waiting like what's going on with this team. We lost a couple good players but we're still great. We signed Derick Brassard, he's helped so much for us and I hope he's back for playoffs. It's an amazing team and I believe."
Head coach Mike Sullivan always talks about how important it is to embrace the process since it's so hard to win in this league, and constantly tells his players that they have to embrace the struggle every day. Sidney Crosby admitted that was easier said than done, at least early on, after winning back-to-back championships.
"It's human nature when you play a couple seasons of important games like that and you come back and you might not have that urgency," Crosby said. "Or you only remember May and June when everything is great and your team is firing on all cylinders, but you don't necessarily remember all the little things that happened - playing through injuries, guys having to come up and step up in new roles, that kind of thing.
"You have to go through that stuff over the course of the year and sometimes it's not quite as fresh in your mind as winning is. It kind of took us awhile to go through that even though we've had two pretty good years previously. You need to go through that and after the new year we figured it out a bit more."
The Penguins' playoff streak, which is the longest active streak in the NHL, began with Malkin's first season back in 2006-07. He's never missed a postseason, except in 2011 when he was out with a torn ACL, and hopes he doesn't have to any time soon.
"I would not understand if it was like three more days and you're done," he said with a laugh. "Then it's different if you lose in the first round or you lose in the Finals. The first round is so quick, it's two more weeks and you're done. We're not happy with this. We understand we need to be done in June."
The last time the Penguins missed the playoffs came during Crosby's rookie year, and he certainly has an appreciation for how difficult it is to earn a spot season after season.
"It's really difficult to get there," he said. "Especially now with how close all the teams are and the standings and things like that. It's difficult to get there, so when you get the opportunity you have to try to make the most of it. With that first round there's so much excitement and anticipation and the intensity is so high. I think as a player that's what you play for. It's always exciting, that time of year."
The excitement and anticipation is already starting to build, with the Penguins not wrapping up the regular season until Friday. The Penguins practice again on Wednesday before heading to Columbus to play the Blue Jackets on Thursday, where they will likely be battling for home-ice advantage in that First Round. And right now, that's where their focus is.
"We understand it's a great chance to win (a third Stanley Cup) but we need to focus on just the next game," Malkin said. "We can't look to the Final. We look to the next game in Columbus and after, we see what's going on. We're happy we're in the playoffs and now we need to win (Thursday) so we can start at home."