'Fragile' to fast: How the Penguins climbed back into contention
March 24, 2016 12:00 AM
"We’re just back in the mix, we haven’t separated ourselves. We’ve just put ourselves back into the conversation," Chris Kunitz said.
By Jenn Menendez / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
When Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury peers through his mask at his teammates these days, he has a much better view.
The Penguins are not the same Penguins they were in the first half of this season.
They return to the ice tonight against the New Jersey Devils with 88 points, a six-game win streak and a grip on third place in the Metropolitan Division, light years from where they were just a few short months ago.
“It’s pretty much the same group of guys. We weren’t awful, but maybe fragile is a good word,” Fleury said. “It feels better now, for sure.”
The Penguins are faster, better in transition and harder to play against. Their confidence appears much harder to shake.
Just ask veteran winger Chris Kunitz, who recalls a team on the edge of the abyss.
The record might have been respectable, but the team’s performances were inconsistent, and goal production — along with effort — was sporadic. By late November, the Penguins had reached their bleakest moment, a 4-0 road loss against the Devils that prompted a closed-door meeting and serious soul-searching.
“You go on another losing streak and you’re too many points from catching up to even be in the wild-card conversation,” Kunitz said. “It has started to turn at the right time of the season. But we’re just back in the mix, we haven’t separated ourselves. We’ve just put ourselves back into the conversation.”
General manager Jim Rutherford pulled the plug on coach Mike Johnston shortly after that low point and hired Mike Sullivan Dec. 12, which marked the start of the shift.
“It was a gradual process,” veteran center Matt Cullen said. “We decided we need to be a lot better team than we are right now. It was, ‘All right. What’s going to make us successful?’ … and let’s get good at it. We got to work on it, getting pucks out of our end and moving them up ice quickly, and we’ve continued to work on it every day since.”
But there have been some major and notable changes, too.
• The addition of defensemen Trevor Daley, Justin Schultz and forward Carl Hagelin, coupled with on-ice adjustments to be faster in transition, have made the Penguins … well … faster.
• The biggest knock in recent postseason losses has been a lack of depth when the big scorers are shut down. But the Penguins have showed legitimate depth from veterans such as Cullen as well as young prospects such as Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary. As a result, they have multiple lines that can produce.
• The coaching change. Johnston was well-respected, but Sullivan is getting through.
• Sidney Crosby is playing like Sidney Crosby. He will take a 12-game point streak into the game tonight and has emerged as a contender for the Hart Trophy with 31 goals, 45 assists for 76 points, third in the NHL before Wednesday.
As a byproduct of those changes and adjustments, the loss of center Evgeni Malkin for 6-8 weeks with an undisclosed injury didn’t mark the beginning of the end. Instead, it galvanized the Penguins, who are 5-0 without him.
When Sullivan thinks back to his first days on the job, there is no comparison to where the Penguins are today especially mentally.
I think we’re in a much different place,” he said Wednesday. “From a mindset standpoint, I think we believe that when we play the game the right way, that we’re a good team and we can beat anybody.
“The operative phrase is we’ve got to play the game the right way and every game presents that challenge.”
Jenn Menendez: email@example.com and Twitter @JennMenendez.
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