It has taken nearly 40 games and nearly four months of work. The Pittsburgh Penguins are finally finding their identity. The words head coach Mike Sullivan has been speaking, or preaching, over and over, may finally be hitting home.
The significance of the Penguins back-to-back low scoring, one-goal wins on Wednesday and Thursday was more than four points or a win over a division rival. The significance of the Penguins victories was not in the who but in the how.
When asked by Pittsburgh Hockey Now about the significance of the wins, Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan couldn’t help but sound optimistic. Proud, even. After months of struggles and setbacks, the Penguins are beginning to win consistently. And more importantly, they’re beginning to win with good hockey, not on talent alone.
“Most importantly for me, I think we’re getting better. We’re getting better as a team. We’re starting to play to our identity,” said Sullivan. “We’re becoming harder to play against.”
The Penguins are buying into a simple, physical style. Who woulda thunk that possible?
“We’re making better decisions about our positioning on the rink, the decisions we make with the puck,” said Sullivan. “We’re taking what they give us and not trying to force plays that aren’t there.”
Unsaid was how the Penguins got here. They’ve had to struggle. They’ve had to lose to learn they are not the same team which dominated 2016 and were just so good they got by in 2017. The league has changed. They’ve changed. They’ve aged.
Their ego has too often taken over. With several two-goal leads over the past few weeks, they were opening up as if the game was won and it was party time. Evgeni Malkin said, “We play too casual.”
It appears the blown two-goal lead against Anaheim on Monday was a necessary wakeup call.
Speed is still present in the Penguins game but their speed is no longer unique. As long as the Penguins have special players such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, talent and skill will be a part of their game. But talent and skill are too easily overcome without the puck.
Turnovers, bad cross-ice passes which opponents absorbed and transitioned against, quick shots without traffic in front of the net and defensive indifference have plagued the Penguins like a virus for 18 months. The desire to be a high-flying, high-scoring team befitting their talent level has plagued them, always.
“Every game is different. You just want to find a way,” said Dominik Simon, who also offered an amusing observation. “We played a good 60 minutes, and we scored one more goal.”
Yep. The Penguins scored one more goal than the Minnesota Wild, just as they scored one more goal than the Washington Capitals. Suddenly, the beleaguered Penguins have won four of five games and their last two in grinding, playoff form.
“We’ve got to find a comfort level in playing in a low scoring, one goal games because that’s the nature of playoff hockey,” Sullivan said..
As Pittsburgh Hockey Now has written, perhaps too many times, the Penguins need to embrace their new identity. They are bigger and stronger than most teams, combined with good speed and extraordinary skill; they might well have an unmatched blend. The Penguins still have deficiencies but some of those will be corrected when puck-moving defenseman Justin Schultz returns from injury in about two months.
And GM Jim Rutherford is probably not going to sit on his hands, either. The Penguins third line is a huge problem. But even against good teams, the Penguins problems were overcome because they are still better than most, but now in different ways.
Two games in December are not a cure all. But for the first time, there is hope in their head coach’s voice, not frustration. There was talk of the playoffs, not loses and there was praise not criticism.
They did the unheralded little things necessary to win and avoided the siren song firewagon hockey. They chose to match the Minnesota structure and the Washington structure. In the past two games, the desire to win trumped their desire to be their idealistic and now passe version of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
It appears the Penguins finally get it. The Penguins are finally embracing their identity.