CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, PA — In their final game before the All-Star break, the Pittsburgh Penguins flatlined in a loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. The ugly 7-3 loss was a free skate version of the team which has been seen too many times this season. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan took his team to the woodshed following the loss. He demanded the players enjoy the break but return prepared to find their identity and buy-in.
The obvious inference was the Penguins continue to fight their identity. Sullivan doubled down Sunday.
As Sullivan sees what he calls the evolution of the NHL game and the Penguins strengths, the identity is not a simple catch-phrase like “Just Play,” which once settled the emotionally rattled Penguins.
Sunday after practice, Sullivan dropped a load of bricks on his team. Not in anger or haste, but in full warning.
“It’s difficult to find consistency without having an element of conscience to your game,” Sullivan said Sunday after practice. “It’s a discipline of mind, it’s a discipline of spirit that we have to acquire in order to become the team we think we’re capable of becoming.”
Perhaps it was fitting Sullivan continued to challenge his team on an evening when former coach Michael Therrien was also in at the UPMC Lemieux complex. Sullivan didn’t call his players soft, but he challenged their conscience and discipline. And their spirit.
His words shouldn’t be taken dismissively or lightly.
Penguins on-ice coach-slash-centerman Matt Cullen also had an answer that would never fit on a bumper sticker. The Penguins squandered their eight-game winning streak and with a poor west coast trip.
“For us, number one, it’s about making good decisions with the puck. We have a skilled group of players,” said Cullen. “When we make good decisions with the puck and put it in areas where we can use our speed and skill to our advantage, we usually do pretty well.”
In hockey terms, as one trusted hockey advisor told PHN, it’s about players keeping the puck ahead of themselves. Good areas are about advancing the puck forward, getting low in the offensive zone and pressuring the opponent.
The Penguins long-time identity since the arrival of a gawky 18-year-old Mario Lemieux has been offense but that isn’t the case in 2019.
“There’s a lot of teams who can score goals,” said Cullen. “It’s not about playing super safe with the puck or playing basic, basic pee-wee hockey. It’s about not giving them freebies and free opportunities with the puck. Make them have to come 200 feet with the puck to score.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean chip-and-chase hockey or ugly grinding hockey, but it does mean not forcing one when the opponent takes it away. If the opponents stacks the blue line, the formula is to move the puck forward to the offensive corner and battle for it.
Trying to stickhandle around one or two defenders is not the wise move. Nor is forcing the rush when the opponent drops players to cover the rush.
“Something Sully [sic] preaches all the time is being hard to play against,” said goalie Matt Murray. “When we’re winning consistently…we’re not beating ourselves, not turning pucks over. We’re forcing teams to play 200 feet rather than turning the puck over at the red line.”
Those multiple identity points from being hard to play against, puck management to using speed and skill were the common themes.
“When we can stay out of our defensive zone, (Sullivan) can put us out there and we can maybe create some havoc down there (offensive zone) and get a whistle so one of our big lines can come out there, we take pride in that,” said fourth-line winger Riley Sheahan.
But again note a question about identity involves getting the puck low and creating havoc. The Penguins said the right things, Sunday after practice. At least the grinders know. The Penguins identity is no longer about outracing opponents and dominating with speed. It’s about suppressing the opponents and using their skill advantage.
And now the great battle begins, both internally and externally. The Penguins will battle teams fighting for a playoff spot and battle themselves to play winning hockey. Conscience, discipline of mind and spirit; those are big words from a head coach with big goals.
And at least a few players understand the details but those players along with the Penguins top line including Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel are not the problem. Now we’ll see if the middle lines, including Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel and Derick Brassard can display that discipline, too.