Ron Cook: Penguins beginning to find stride under coach Sullivan
February 28, 2016 12:19 AM
Penguins' Evgeni Malkin made his return from injury Saturday against Winnipeg at Consol Energy Center.
By Ron Cook / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
After Dan Bylsma replaced fired Mike Therrien as Penguins coach in February 2009, the team went 18-3-4 down the stretch and won the Stanley Cup. I’m not ready to say the franchise’s latest coaching change will produce the same ultimate prize, but I do like what Mike Sullivan has done since replacing fired Mike Johnston Dec. 12. After losing their first four games as Sullivan settled in, the Penguins have gone 16-7-5, including a 4-1 win Saturday against the Winnipeg Jets at Consol Energy Center.
“I think we’ve made big strides as far as the type of team we’re trying to become,” Sullivan said early Saturday evening before heading into the night, presumably to celebrate his 48th birthday with his family.
“I think our players have a pretty solid understanding of how we have to play and the details of our game to have our best chance at success. We’ve tried hard to define an identity. It starts with our speed. I think it’s our competitiveness. I think it’s our resiliency. Our speed and our competitiveness have to be our advantage moving forward.”
Both were on display against the Jets.
Carl Hagelin had two goals, Kris Letang one. They are among the faster skaters in the NHL. Getting Hagelin and swift-skating, puck-moving defenseman Trevor Daley in trades has worked out well for Penguins general manager Jim Rutherford.
The competitiveness took over after a dull, scoreless first period. The Penguins did what they were expected to do, dispatching one of the league’s worst teams. Winnipeg is 0-6 at Consol.
“I really like Mike Sullivan,” Rutherford said. “He’s a good fit for this team. This coaching change has changed the style of play. It’s helped the way our players like to play.”
Hagelin described it as a “fast-paced” game.
“It’s important to play [defense]. If you do it the right way, you’re going to get chances offensively. I think once we’re in the offensive zone, he’s not going to take the stick out of our hands. He’s going to let us do what we want to do. He’s going to let us be creative. That’s a coach you want to play for.”
Since Dec. 21, the Penguins have put more shots on goal than any NHL team. They rank fifth in goals, scoring at least four in 12 of the past 28 games. Their power play has improved dramatically, although it is in a 1-for-25 rut.
Sullivan and Rutherford are convinced the speed game is the way the Penguins can be effective against bigger, more physical, tight-checking teams such as the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers. His players seem to agree.
“I’m really pleased with how they’ve been receptive to what we’re preaching. They’re buying in,” Sullivan said. “Our core guys want to play a speed game. Crosby can skate. Malkin can stake. Letang can stake. Kessel can skate. We don’t want to slow the game down. We want to speed it up.”
Sidney Crosby and Letang have led the way. Crosby has 19 goals and 34 points in his past 27 games, although he has slowed with just one goal, three points and 14 shots on goal in the past eight games. Letang’s goal Saturday gave him nine goals and 32 points in his past 25 games.
“My experience with these guys so far has been nothing short of tremendous,” Sullivan said, throwing stars Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel into that mix. “For me, the biggest challenge of coaching in this league is your ability to build relationships with those guys, your ability to sell them on your message. Today’s athletes are very prepared. They’re very smart. You can’t just come in and bang it over their head and try to force it down their throat. It’s a cooperative effort …
“What I’ve tried to do is build relationships, tried to inspire them to play a certain way. The balancing act is trying to inspire them and, at the same time, holding them accountable to a certain standard so that we can continue to play the right way.
“Our guys have just been terrific. They’ve offered feedback, which we encourage. With each day I spend with them, I think our relationship gets better. It takes time to build trust.”
Sullivan had that trust with his Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins before being promoted to the big club. Now, players such as Scott Wilson, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl, Kevin Porter and Derrick Pouliot are making major contributions to the Penguins. The forwards have been so good — Wilson scored Saturday, his fourth goal in the past five games — that Rutherford said he doesn’t feel the need to add a winger before Monday’s trade deadline. The Penguins were able to beat the Jets without getting a point from Crosby or Malkin, who was playing for the first time in 11 games.
“I think it gives them a comfort level, but it also gives me a comfort level,” Sullivan said of Wilson and the other young players. “I know what their capabilities and strengths are. They’ve already established a level of trust. That’s one of the reasons why they’re here.
“The thing I like about this young group is they’re very hungry. They bring enthusiasm and energy to our team. I think that’s infectious. It’s helped build our competitive spirit.”
Sullivan will keep pushing for refinement, for improvement. Hagelin described him as “a good motivator” and “a fair coach, who tells you exactly what he wants from you.” Marc-Andre Fleury described Sullivan as “emotional” and “intense.”
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