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‘Just Play’ Gets Put to the Ultimate Test

Mike Sullivan. By Michael Miller (Own work) | CC BY-SA 4.0

Mike Sullivan spent two seasons as an NHL head coach and parts of seven others as an NHL assistant before stepping behind the Penguins’ bench in December 2015. That afforded plenty of time for him to catch the act of Pittsburgh teams who routinely barked at officials, were quick to engage chirping opponents and easily distracted by after-the-whistle nonsense that landed them in the penalty box.

The nadir of that behavior, of course, was the Penguins’ mental meltdown in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs against Philadelphia. That series outcome had more to do with Pittsburgh’s self-inflicted wounds than it did with Peter Laviolette‘s contention that it showcased Claude Giroux surpassing Sidney Crosby as the world’s best player.

A statement that was absurd the moment it was uttered and is utterly laughable five years later.

Sullivan sought to immediately refocus all that emotion back toward his team’s own game, and his “just play” mantra became the underlying theme of the Penguins’ march to the Stanley Cup last June. His players got it, they put it into action and they were rewarded for it.

When this regular season began, Sullivan stayed on message. The Penguins finished 23rd in the NHL in penalty minutes despite many opportunities to succumb to the emotion of the moment when the physical BS around Crosby and Evgeni Malkin got a little too thick. I’m not a fan of fighting but accept that it will always be a part of the game, but even so there were a few times this season when I thought it would be completely reasonable for the Penguins to put a physical stop to some of it. You have a playoff-bound team; there’s no real harm in taking that major in January even if it costs you a game, right?

Nope.

Game 4, Just Play?

Fast forward to tonight and Game 4 against Washington. In many ways, this game and the rest of the series will be the ultimate test of how deeply that “just play” mentality has been absorbed into the Penguins’ blood. Matt Niskanen and Alexander Ovechkin will get 60 minutes or more to help their team even the series. Crosby will watch.

It would be easy for the Penguins right now to lose control of the emotions their coach has so forcefully and repeatedly encouraged them to direct toward the tactics that win games: using their speed, their work ethic and their determination to bring about the results they have achieved so often this season. The Stanley Cup playoffs are nothing if not a cauldron of emotion to begin with, and the teams that succeed this time of year have not only skill and determination but enough resolve to keep the lid from blowing off.

The Capitals can be expected to try and coax some reckless behavior out of the Penguins at every turn from here on in, especially now that they’ve scored three power play goals in the past two games. Washington has only four even-strength goals in three games in this series, and a dominant power play is its easiest path to victory.

X’s and O’s

But if the Penguins are paying attention, there was a lot to like about the way they turned into Game 3 after Washington scored the first goal. They had more puck control through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone, where they won more battles and their defensemen were more aggressive in pinching down to keep the Capitals bottled up. They cycled more. Their puck support game returned. Meanwhile, they rendered Ovechkin nearly invisible. Even without Crosby, they have something positive to build on for Game 4 – if they ignore all the peripheral craziness that has descended upon the series.

Sullivan’s investment in the “just play” message never has more potential to pay larger dividends than it does this time of year. The Penguins proved that last spring but have another chance to do so beginning tonight. It’s a more difficult test this time around, sure, but passing it certainly seems necessary if they’re going to graduate to the Conference Finals.

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