On the morning of March 24, Pittsburgh sat at 24th in the NHL standings and 13th in the Eastern Conference, nine points out of the final Eastern Conference playoff spot and with just a 1.7% percent chance of making the postseason.

The Penguins then dragged themselves back into the fight, picking up points in 11 of their last 12 games to get themselves back in contention. While they got eliminated the night before playing Game 82, that stretch said a lot about them “as people, first and foremost, but also as hockey players,” Penguins Head Coach Mike Sullivan said.

“So, I couldn't be more proud of the group with what we've been able to accomplish here over the last month or so. Obviously, we're disappointed that we didn't put ourselves in a better position leading up to that. But certainly, the response speaks volumes.”

Bryan Rust said guys just came together and buckled down after the dust settled from the March 8 deadline that saw the Penguins be sellers for the first time in recent memory, sending Jake Guentzel to Carolina. Sidney Crosby said that the whole group showed a lot of character, and “that every single guy stepped up and had a part in us still being in it.”

Alex Nedeljkovic was a fantastic story, getting 13 straight starts in goal and firmly re-establishing himself at the NHL level after a couple of bumpy seasons in Detroit. Evgeni Malkin turned it up, scoring seven times in that stretch. Rust, “a Pittsburgh Penguin born and bred,” as Sullivan likes to say, left it all on the ice like always. Drew O’Connor took huge steps in his development, stringing together two three-game goal streaks. Rookies Jack St. Ivany and Ryan Shea earned the trust of the coaching staff as a third defensive pairing. The list goes on.

However, the captain was the biggest factor behind the team’s 8-1-3 run.

“Both on the ice and off the ice, you could see he was just so driven,” Rust said. “The way he just handles himself, the way he plays, how hard he plays, how hard he prepares – it’s something that has been unbelievable to watch over the last, what, 10 years that I’ve been here? But especially over the last month.”

His numbers this season at age 36 are remarkable without context, scoring 42 goals – the third-highest total of his 19-year career – and 94 points. But Crosby truly took it to another level in the last few weeks of the year, with his 24 points since March 24 ranking first in the NHL, and simply playing inspiring hockey.

It’s unfortunate we won’t get to see that dominance continue when the stakes are highest, especially because “I think once you get to playoffs, anything can happen,” Crosby said. “I feel like we were trending the right way, we were one of the hottest teams in the league late, and don't have much to show for it right now. But hopefully, that's something we can build off of.

“There are lots of teams who want to win the Stanley Cup. I mean, that’s what I play for and I think that’s what we all believe, (that) if you get in, anything can happen. We felt like we were playing good at the right time, but yeah, there’s a lot to go through.”

While the Penguins felt like they were capable of being a playoff team, they ultimately fell short in a season that had so much promise after a thrilling first offseason with Kyle Dubas, highlighted by the addition of Erik Karlsson.

While there are positives to draw from the strong finish, as Crosby said, the entire campaign has to be taken into account when trying to understand why Pittsburgh missed the postseason for a second consecutive year after putting together a 16-year playoff streak, the longest active run in all of the major North American professional sports leagues.

“When you're talking about one or two points, there’s a lot of different games or instances you look at,” Crosby said. “So, it's hard to turn one or two points and magnify that into what the reason is necessarily, but there's probably different things. I think the obvious one is just multiple games where we had leads, and we ended up not even getting points in some of those.”

Lars Eller said game management and the wrong decisions at the wrong time are some of the reasons for not closing out games – particularly in the first half – where the Penguins had leads and were the better team. They also struggled on the power play, finishing 31st in the league.

There’s a lot of work to be done in those areas and others, which will be addressed by Dubas and his staff. But knowing that the core – particularly the Big Three of Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang, will be back to lead this team – should inspire some confidence through the coming months.

“I just think this is a core group of players that have been one of the most accomplished groups in the history of the game,” Sullivan said. “Watching them compete the way I've watched them compete, year in and year out, gives me unwavering belief in them. Just their drive and their will to win, they were a huge part of dragging us back into the fight.

“I just think those experiences, they have an influence on my belief in them. I think they're still (at an) elite level (of) play. Sid’s had a remarkable season. Tanger’s had a pretty strong season. I think Geno's really played well down the stretch. So, I just believe in this group. Always have.”