Penguins clinch East Division
It has been one of the most bizarre seasons in National Hockley League history, but given all the restraints of the COVID-19 pandemic both players and fans have to be happy with how the regular season ultimately played out. Throughout the campaign, teams have only been allowed to play games within their division and it will remain this way for the first two rounds of the playoffs as well. While playing the same six or seven teams all season can be draining, the Pittsburgh Penguins demonstrated how to successfully get the job done.
On Saturday, the Penguins hosted the worst team in the East Division – the Buffalo Sabres – with an eye on solidifying first place. Buffalo put up a bigger fight than most had anticipated, but when the dust was settled the Penguins emerged with the crucial 1-0 victory to cement top spot. Making the victory even more impressive was the fact that the Penguins were without their top two goaltenders Casey DeSmith and Tristan Jarry.
Pittsburgh gave Maxime Lagace his first NHL start in more than two years and the team could not have asked for anymore from the 28-year-old who picked up his first career shutout.
“Probably, what I’ll remember most is when the buzzer sounded,” Lagace told reporters following the victory, via Sportsnet. “It was such a relief. Within the last four minutes, I’d say I started to think about the shutout. It was creeping into my head a little bit and I wanted it so bad.”
Lagace signed with the Penguins in October, 2020 on a one-year two-way contract as the club was looking to add depth to the goaltending position. While Saturday was his first NHL game with the franchise, it was a move that paid off.
“Playing my first NHL game in two years, I wanted to keep it simple,” Lagace continued. “I tried to have fun, I did have fun, and the boys played well in front of me. I’m obviously very happy with the result.”
The win capped off a remarkable conclusion to the campaign for Pittsburgh as they finished the season with 13 wins in their final 16 games as they chased first place. It had been a dogfight with the Washington Capitals for top spot, but the Penguins ultimately prevailed.
The division title is the ninth in franchise history, as Pittsburgh has now qualified for the playoffs in 15 consecutive seasons – the longest active streak in North American professional sports.
“This is when the fun starts,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’ve done the heavy lifting to earn the privilege to compete for the Stanley Cup. I look forward to the next part of it with this group of players.”
Pittsburgh will now sit back and await their first-round opponent. They will either take on the Boston Bruins or New York Islanders, depending on how the final couple of games of the season play out for the two teams. No more regular season games to play themselves, the Penguins can now begin to focus all their attention on the playoffs.