It was another head-scratcher weekend for the Pittsburgh Penguins and fans who are waiting for the Penguins dominance to reemerge. Another loss to the Montreal Canadiens, an undermanned and lesser talented team highlighted the Penguins difficulties in the young season. The Canadiens blitzed the Penguins for the entirety of the second period, and the veteran Penguins were left to hang on.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has encouraged them team to regain their swagger. While it’s a proper goal, swagger cannot be assumed or claimed.
Mike Sullivan first used the word swagger after the Vegas win, last Thursday, “I didn’t think we had our swagger tonight like I know our team is capable of, and that’s when we’re at our very best,” Sullivan said. “That’s what we have to get to in order for our team to get to the level that we’re capable of.”
Swagger must be earned.
“I’ve always been a believer in a certain mindset to play this game,” said head coach Mike Sullivan, Saturday. “There’s a certain level of will that’s associated with having success.”
Sullivan is spot on about having the will and a mindset. From executing well and playing well will come swagger. Not vice versa.
The 2017-18 Penguins had plenty of swagger. They were always confident they would play better in the next game. They always felt they could flip the switch and be great when they needed to be. Fear or doubts never crept into the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion’s locker room.
It was a false swagger.
Had the 2017-18 Penguins been more self-aware, or been less presumptive, perhaps the results would have been different. There was an assumption which carried the team for the season that in the end they could or would prevail because they previously had.
Sullivan is correct the 2018-19 Penguins need to regain their swagger. But it cannot be talked into existence.
Wins. Dominant performances. Even strength goals. Doing those things consistently will bring swagger. The Penguins power play is a prime example. After a year of dominance which has extended into this season, players know they can notch a power play in big moments. Swagger proceeded that success, it didn’t precede it.
Kris Letang played his best game in a couple of years, Saturday. Letang played his best game since 2016 before neck surgery cost him half of 2016 and hindered his 2016-17 season; fast, physical and decisive. Letang’s solid play has multiplied, and if there is one player who is earning swagger, it’s Letang.
Despite the Penguins as a team struggling with shots against, Letang’s Corsi is in positive territory (54 percent). Letang has been on the ice for more goals scored (7) than against (6) and his high danger scoring chance ratio is nearly astronomical (65 percent).
That’s a good way to get swagger.
Jack Johnson similarly had strong moments in the game against Montreal, Saturday. Johnson’s advanced statistics are a mixed bag, but the more in-depth statistics show a more critical story. Johnson is an underwater Cori player (46 percent) but has been on the ice for more high danger chances-for (13) than high dangers chances-against. But players don’t gain swagger based on advanced statistics, and most players don’t pay attention to them.
What will add confidence to Johnson’s gait is the five-on-three penalty kill, Saturday. Johnson earned a couple hits, kept goalie Casey DeSmith’s vision clear, and poked away a few chances.
“Fantastic,” said DeSmith. “Huge kills, (Saturday). Five-one-threes and four-on-threes are so tough, and it takes some serious willpower to kill those off by everybody.”
Johnson has 13 hits in four games, which is a 266 hit pace. He won’t lose any sleep over his Corsi rating but should be bolstered by helping the team in a big moment.
While a few players have taken steps forward, the team as a whole has not.
As players contribute and succeed in adverse moments, the Penguins swagger will return. Their puzzle will come together but that bulletproof confidence which propelled them to the 2016 Stanley Cup, and sustained them through a grueling 2017 championship, will not be given. It must be earned. And to earn it, the Penguins need to win a few games and win them with solid efforts.
When that happens, then the Penguins will begin to earn their swagger.