Thoughts, musings, and observations from the Pens' 4-1 win against the Red Wings at PPG Paints Arena.
* They're in!
The Pens have officially clinched a spot in the 2019 Stanley Cup playoffs. It is their 13th-straight berth, which is the NHL's longest active streak and longest active run in club history.
It may have taken them longer to clinch than they would have liked, and it's crazy to think they needed 99 points to lock up a spot, but that's just indicative of how good the division is.
"It's not easy," Sidney Crosby said after the game. "You see it comes down to Game 81 and there's a lot of things that happened over the course of the year, so it's difficult. It's a tight league, you have to earn it. It's a good feeling, but we have a game left here and we have to take advantage of that, get some points and get ready."
The Pens knew that nothing was guaranteed, and never got ahead of themselves, with credit going to Mike Sullivan and the coaching staff for instilling the right mindset to make sure their guys stayed in the moment and took care of the task at hand. In turn, he gave his players a lot of credit for battling through the adversity they've faced.
"I think the players have done a terrific job game in and game out to find ways to win," he said. "We've had a lot of injuries here over the last month, key guys not in the lineup, and yet guys continue to find ways to win. That's what I love about this group of players. They're a committed group. They love playing at this time of year."
* It certainly helped that they got Evgeni Malkin (upper-body injury, 8 games missed) and Kris Letang (upper-body injury, 4 games missed) back for this game.
Their presences were felt the most on the power play, where the Pens ended up going 2-for-4 with those two back on the first unit alongside Sidney Crosby, Patric Hornqvist and Phil Kessel. The Pens are simply a much better and deeper team when they're in the lineup.
"I think the impact they have is huge," Sullivan said. "Both guys are just dominant players and it changes the whole dynamic of our team. The power play was big tonight. Both of those guys are a big part of it. Our power play is a different power play when those guys are in the lineup.
"The impact they have is felt throughout every aspect of our game, not just the power play. It puts players in positions where they're cast in a role that they should be cast in, where they're in somewhat of a comfort zone. It's just a significant impact that they have."
* Kessel always tends to elevate his game at key times. Tonight was a perfect example of that. He tallied twice, including his league-leading 10th game-winner, to help lead the Pens to this crucial victory.
His first goal came on a power play in the first period. Crosby and Hornqvist did a tremendous job of battling in the blue paint for the puck, eventually getting it over to Kessel at the side of the net for the tap-in.
His second goal came off a set faceoff play in the offensive zone. Malkin won the draw back to Kessel at the bottom of the circle, who quickly fired it past Howard for the score.
Kessel created quality scoring chances all night, which is especially great to see considering how it's been a trying season at times for the veteran winger. He recently endured the toughest stretch of his career when he went 16 games without a goal from Feb. 1 to March 5. Shortly before he snapped the drought, Kessel said it felt like he wasn't going to score again this year.
He's broken through in a big way this week, scoring Pittsburgh's lone goal in their 4-1 loss to Detroit on Tuesday and tacking on another two tonight to give him 27 on the season.
"Whenever you're ice cold like that, your confidence has to dip a little bit," he said. "It was nice to get a couple and hopefully they keep going in."
* Another player who broke through tonight was Crosby, who scored Pittsburgh's fourth goal of the game on the power play to break a 10-game goalless drought of his own. He also tacked on two assists for a three-point night.
His linemate Jake Guentel got his 39th goal of the season to open the scoring for the Pens. He will more than likely join Chris Kunitz as the only players not named Crosby or Malkin to lead the team in goal scoring during the Crosby and Malkin era.