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Penguins beat Canadiens to clinch playoff spot

April 8, 2018
The Penguins celebrate Conor Sheary's goal against the Canadiens in the first period Saturday, March 31, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena.

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. Sullivan confirmed Kessel was not on the bench at the end of the game because of injury. He did not have any details and said an update might come Sunday before the Penguins host Metropolitan-leading Washington.

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 percentage to 26.4.

“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.”

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.

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.”

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 cadamski@tribweb.com or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.

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