It will be the crux of the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their ability to adhere to a simple, aggressive game will define their end result in April, May or even June. In the first 50 games of the 2019-20 NHL season, the Pittsburgh Penguins had nearly as much talent on the trainer’s table as they did on the ice. While the whirlpools were filled with injured players, the remaining players and newbies who got their first taste of the NHL life stormed the league.
The Penguins played a straight-ahead, relentless style without frills. They surged to the fourth-best record in the NHL, despite having superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together for only a few games.
Tuesday night, the Penguins were again sans Malkin. So, Crosby and his squadron merely took the ice and dominated the Toronto Maple Leafs. Embarrassed them, really. The fallout in Toronto Wednesday morning was full-on Code Red panic.
The Penguins game was simple. Five goals, including a few well-earned power-play goals later, the Penguins were cruising. So, why has it been tougher to play the same concentrated, penetrating game when the Penguins are close to healthy?
“That’s a good question, I’m not sure I have an answer for you,” Sullivan responded to PHN after the Penguins 5-2 win on Tuesday night.
Then he proceeded to deliver a full two-minute speech on the virtues of the simple game and the Penguins’ potential within it. In the process, Sullivan may have admitted his greatest challenge, too. The more Sullivan spoke, the more interesting his answer became.
“I do think that when key players go down, a guy like ‘Geno’ or Sid or ‘Tanger’ or some of the guys that we really rely on night in and night out, if they’re not in our lineup, I think everybody understands that we all need to step up as a group in order to fill that void,” Sullivan began. “You just don’t replace those guys. But what you can do is that is as you can simplify your game and you can work together as a group. And be hard to play against and give yourself a chance to win.”
The Penguins haven’t exactly sputtered since Crosby returned to the lineup in mid-January after he missed two months with core muscle surgery. With the win Tuesday night, the Penguins surged to first place in the Metro Division.
But the level of play hasn’t been the same. The Penguins haven’t been the hard-charging, puck hounds, at least not consistently, since they got Crosby and Malkin together.
The tide has begun to turn with solid wins over Montreal and Detroit, but those teams are the NHL Sisters of the Poor. Neither will be close to a playoff spot and Detroit has a shockingly bad negative goal differential that surpassed 100.
Tuesday night, the Penguins forced Toronto head coach Sheldon Keefe to wave the white flag by the second intermission.
“(I) fired all the bullets I had. From there, the team has to make the decision, especially with the way that the second period went,” Keefe said. “Hearing from me at that point, I don’t think they’d be taking in much.”
But can the Penguins achieve that level of punishing simplicity with two of the best players in the world?
“Sometimes I wish I could convince us when we have a full lineup to play with the same level of simplicity. Because I do think that’s when our team is at its best,” Sullivan continued. “We can utilize our speed. We can play behind (the other) team’s defenseman, and we can put pressure on our opponents to have to make plays under duress. And usually we can create offense off of it.”
In other words, the Penguins can do as they did on Tuesday night and torture the opponent’s defensemen, create turnovers, then put those opportunities in the back of the net.
Recent evidence suggests the Penguins will be able to do simplify their game when it matters the most. See also, Stanley Cup Winners 2016, 2017. But the Penguins haven’t been able to hold firm in the last two seasons.
“This is what I’ve told our guys all year long that maybe the silver lining in all the adversity that we faced this year with regard to some of the injuries is that we’ve discovered an identity that we can play to,” Sullivan concluded. “That (style) brings us success. And we’ve got a lot of evidence to suggest that when we play the game a certain way, we’re a pretty competitive team.”
A few more tests against the Washington Capitals loom before the second season begins. Can Mike Sullivan convince the Penguins to keep it simple? Can the Penguins avoid the temptations of a skilled lineup and maintain a hard-working mentality?
As Sullivan said, “Good question.” The answer will define the Pittsburgh Penguins season.