PITTSBURGH – Nearly three dozen players walked the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room during the regular season, a by-product of an injury list that seemed to be in constant flux.
Some, like Captain Sidney Crosby, seem to be there forever. Some, like well-traveled striker Frederick Gaudreau, got stuck and stayed. Some, like massive rookie winger Radim Zohorna, made memorable cameos before disappearing back into the airwaves.
However, each of them contributed in some way to the franchise’s top division title in seven years. The Penguins rarely missed a beat – especially in the last two months of the season – even with a line-up that fluctuated from game to game and sometimes shifted from shift to shift.
And while players pointed to Coach Mike Sullivan’s steadfast leadership and Crosby’s continued excellence as the linchpin for the rest of the organization, there may have been another accomplice: the league’s COVID-19 logs.
The guidelines to protect players during the pandemic created a kind of bubble as the teams took to the streets. A bubble that prevented her from peeling off in small groups to go out for dinner or coffee. A bubble that often left them stuck in some way in the hotel with nothing but time on their hands and each other.
“We’d order food at the hotel every night throughout the season because that was our only means of getting food inside, hanging out, talking and playing together and all of those things,” said defense attorney Mike Matheson Wednesday. “It was like a little hockey where you spend the whole tournament hanging out with your teammates at the hotel.
“And I think it was a great opportunity to get to know each other even better than we would have done in a regular season.”
A development that in a strange way could have accelerated the bonding process. One that could prove invaluable as the Penguins prepare to host the New York Islanders in the opening round of the playoffs.
“When teams have strong relationships outside of the ice, my experience has been that they play tough against each other on the ice,” said Sullivan. “That could be one of the unintended benefits of this unusual circumstance.”
A circumstance under which Pittsburgh thrived. The Penguins got off to a sluggish start and ended with an 18: 5: 2 crack that put them in first place in the east, past Boston and Washington.
It’s a track where they drove through injuries against strikers Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen and Brandon Tanev. The arrival of two-time Stanley Cup winner Jeff Carter at close of trading last month helped.
Tristan Jarry and Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel, who are among the best in the NHL, have played excellently on the net.
But they hardly managed it alone. They did it with a group of players who suddenly found themselves in the middle of a tight playoff race for the first time.
Players who had an immediate impact at times.
Players like Zohorna, who scored his first shot in the NHL in a win over Buffalo on March 25th.
Players like goalkeeper Maxime Lagace, who celebrated his first win in more than three years by knocking out the Sabers in the regular season final on May 8th.
And while most of the newcomers aim to honor Crosby’s stewardship, the longtime captain declined upon arrival, as part of the recipe that allowed the Penguins to extend their playoff streak to 15 consecutive years, the longest professional sport in North America.
“Only the energy and excitement that the guys brought to our team, whether they came from anywhere else, came from Wilkes,” said Crosby. “I think you came in and took the opportunity … I think this is contagious.”
That energy is part of a plan that has made the penguins younger and faster than on their last two off-season trips. The islanders smothered her in a four-game game in 2019. Last summer, Montreal stunned them in the qualifying round.
It resulted in a lot of off-season soul searching and a revision of both the coaching staff and roster.
Pittsburgh is entering the playoffs with verve, in pretty good health and a somewhat unspoken sense of urgency.
The core of Crosby, Malkin and defender Kris Letang have more years behind them in their respective careers than they did before them. You are well aware of this. During those idle hours in the hotel, which were also some kind of hockey version of organic chemistry, there was no conversation.
“It’s a new group and we played good hockey on the track,” said Crosby. “I think we have to take that and another level.”
Islanders (32-17-7) around Penguins (37-16-3)
Sunday noon, NBC
Game 2: Tuesday in Pittsburgh, 7:30 p.m.
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