Penguins beat Canadiens to clinch playoff spot
There can be no three-peat without a spot in the tournament. The Penguins have attained that first achievement.
After a Florida Panthers loss at the Boston Bruins earlier in the day set the table, the Penguins clinched a playoff berth for a franchise-record 12th consecutive season with a 5-2 win against the Montreal Canadiens on Saturday night. It is the longest active streak in the NHL.
Patric Hornqvist had his 200th career goal, one of three power-play tallies for the Penguins (45-28-6), who won consecutive games for the first time in more than three weeks.
“It’s not easy to make the playoffs in this league,” defenseman Olli Maatta said. “It feels good.”
The Penguins sure make qualifying for the postseason look easy: They’ve done it 23 of 27 times since 1991. But when they fell to 20-19-3 just after the season’s midway point, making the playoffs appeared far from certain.
It did even as recently as Tuesday after a listless loss at the Detroit Red Wings left Eastern Conference ninth-place Florida within striking distance.
Coach Mike Sullivan called a playoff berth “special.”
“This league is a difficult league,” he said, “and it’s such a fine line between winning and losing. It’s an accomplishment.”
Perhaps dampening the postgame enthusiasm, though, was an injury of unknown severity to Penguins wing Phil Kessel.
The Penguins (96 points) pulled to within three points of the Capitals, who have four games remaining, the Penguins three.
Conor Sheary, Hornqvist and Carl Hagelin scored over a span of 4 minutes, 55 seconds of the first period Saturday against ex-teammate Antii Niemi. Both of the Canadiens’ goals (from Jeff Petry and Jonathan Drouin) came in the first period, too.
Kessel had a goal and an assist, and Riley Sheahan added a power-play goal for the Penguins, who went 3 for 5 on the power play to improve their NHL-leading conversion percentage to 26.4 percent.
The power play is on pace to break the team season record. It kept the Penguins afloat through awful 5-on-5 play over the first three months.
“Our power play has been good the whole year,” Hornqvist said. “That’s really key. Sometimes you have a hot power play, and you’re hot for 10-15 games and get the percentage up, but our power play has been almost the same for 79 games now.”
Hornqvist’s power-play goal gave the Penguins the lead during the first period, and Kessel and Sheahan scored on the power play 109 seconds apart in the third to put the game away.
Hornqvist’s goal was his 26th, his 15th on the power play. He moved into a tie with Steven Stamkos and Alex Ovechkin for second most in the league (behind Patrik Laine’s 19).
Sheary’s 17th of the season and second in as many games came 59 seconds after Petry opened scoring at 8:42 of the first period.
Kessel’s goal with 12:52 to play in regulation came seconds after Artturi Lehkonen whiffed on a breakaway all alone in front of Matt Murray following a neutral-zone turnover by Evgeni Malkin.
Sheahan made it 5-2 less than 2 minutes after Kessel’s goal and seconds after the Canadiens again failed to convert on a breakaway. Murray’s stop of Paul Byron was one of 24 he made in starting the first of back-to-back games.
“It was one of those weird games,” Murray said, “high-quality (opponent) chances, but maybe not as much high-quantity.”
Sidney Crosby’s five-game goal streak was snapped. He had the primary assist on Kessel’s goal and went 22-2 on faceoffs.
The only team they’ve beaten in regulation since March 11 is Montreal, but they’ve done that three times in 17 days.
The Penguins maintained the upper hand Saturday on a team that has won three of its past 13 games. The victory snapped a streak of 10 games in which the Penguins had alternated wins and losses.
“The first step in this room (is) to make the playoffs,” Hornqvist said. “Now we have to make sure we try to get better every single time we come to the rink. We know what it’s all about in the playoffs. Hopefully we have a really fun run.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.