"Just kind of a relief," the forward admitted. "It's definitely been a different year for a lot of guys, obviously with the management change and COVID affecting everybody in the world, not just the NHL, right? So I feel as an organization, we've handled it very well."
They certainly did, as the Penguins ended up clinching first place in the East Division later that night for their ninth title in franchise history and first since the 2013-14 season.
The Penguins then got a much-needed, well-deserved day off on Sunday to take a breath after everything they went through in a shortened, condensed 56-game campaign that was an absolute grind not just physically, but mentally as well with all of the protocols and restrictions put in place to keep everybody safe and healthy.
"It was never easy the whole season," defenseman Brian Dumoulin admitted during Monday's media availability. "We had a lot of ups and downs, especially in the beginning. We had a lot of injuries."
The Penguins ended up with 273 man-games lost and key players missing significant time, like Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen, Jason Zucker, Brandon Tanev, Teddy Blueger, Mike Matheson and Dumoulin.
But those adversities helped galvanize the group, and the guys formed quite a bond as a result. That closeness is what stands out the most to Jake Guentzel when he reflects on the last few months.
"The team bonding, I think that's the biggest thing that I've taken out of it," he said. "You're stuck in the hotels; you're just hanging around the guys and it's the fun times you have after games that really brought us closer as a team. It showed on the ice that we have a fun group this year, and you're just excited to go to battle with them every night. I think the team camaraderie is really good and I think it was a big part of this year."
Dumoulin also said that looking back on it, having guys in and out of the lineup forced them to keep their focus on the game right in front of them, which ultimately resulted in big-picture success.
"We put ourselves in a position at that time to potentially put ourselves in the best spot for the playoffs and to have home ice and be where we're at, so really proud of the group for what we accomplished this season," Dumoulin said.
Now, the Penguins' focus is on getting ready for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, whenever that may be.
"We've had some early exits last couple years, so I think it drives you even more, you want to win that much more," Guentzel said. "So I think for us, it's just an exciting time. We've had a good regular season so far, so I think we're all excited to get going here and just can't wait for it to start."
The postseason was originally supposed to begin on May 11, but is now TBD after the NHL regular season was extended to accommodate the Vancouver Canucks following their COVID-19 outbreak. Dumoulin said they are choosing to look at the positives of having some extra days off heading into playoffs, especially considering the toll of the regular season.
"It's always good to have some time off to strengthen what you need to, to get some rest and to try to recover as much as you can for playoffs," Dumoulin said. "Because you know in playoffs, obviously guys play through a lot of injuries. So the healthier that they can get, the better, especially for the start. We're looking to use this week as an opportunity for that."
Mike Sullivan said the coaching staff will do its part to make sure the team stays plugged in as they await word on a start date, as well as an opponent. While it's likely that Pittsburgh will play the New York Islanders in Round One, there is still a chance they could face Boston.
"We've put a game plan together on how to approach this week, with the ability to adjust depending on when the start date is going to be," Sullivan said. "We're excited about the opportunity that we have this week to practice. We haven't had a whole lot of practice opportunities here because of the challenges of our schedule down the stretch, so we're going to try to maximize this week to get our team as ready as possible."
He said they will be building in some scrimmage time to do everything within their power to mitigate the potential downside of having such a long period between games.
"We're going to stay ready; we're going to stay engaged in this process here," Sullivan said. "This is when the fun starts. That's what I said to the team. We've done the heavy lifting to this point to earn the privilege to compete for the Stanley Cup, and now the fun starts. And for me, the most rewarding part is the journey. And I look forward to this next part of it in the playoffs with this group of players."
The Penguins held on- and off-ice workouts at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex on Monday morning.
Notable appearances at the optional practice included:
- Center Evgeni Malkin, who sat out the final 8:48 of the third period on Saturday after a collision with Sabres forward Dylan Cozens. He remained on the bench, and Sullivan had this to say afterward: "Geno thought he tweaked something on that collision. He got checked out afterwards and felt fine. We don't anticipate any issues moving forward. We held him out for precautionary reasons down the stretch."
- Winger Brandon Tanev, who missed the last 17 games of the regular season with an upper-body injury and hopes to be ready for the start of playoffs.
- Defenseman Mike Matheson, who missed the last four games of the regular season after being struck in the face with a puck. He was wearing a full shield at the session.
Sullivan also said that goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith skated on their own this morning with goalie coach Mike Buckley. Jarry (upper-body) and DeSmith (lower-body), who are considered day-to-day, did not dress for the regular-season finale but are expected to be ready for the start of playoffs.