There is an emerging attitude in the Pittsburgh Penguins locker room. There is a chip on their shoulder, which isn’t necessarily born of winning eight in a row or 13 of 16 before their prescheduled bi-annual loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Sunday night. No, the biggest change is the championship halo has finally worn off the Penguins. They are hungry again.
The Penguins wore their crown through last season as a King who could not lose it. Through thick and thin, and far too much thin, they believed themselves to be ready for any task. They told themselves they were ready; they had been there, done that and could do that anytime they really wanted.
“We threw lots of rationalizations around,” head coach Mike Sullivan said in late September. In full disclosure, the Penguins commander was referring to the first half of the 2017-18 season, but the Penguins were still plagued throughout the year by odd-man breaks, breakdowns and more sloppiness than a 10-year-old’s bedroom.
They weren’t much fun to watch, quite frankly. The “We’ll be fine,” locker room refrain rang hollow but never wavered.
As we know, as the coaching staff knew, they weren’t ready. That inflated belief-of-self prevented good habits and invited selfish habits. Had the Philadelphia Flyers not been a gong show of defensive mistakes, horrendous penalty killing, and red cape goaltending, the Penguins could have fallen in Round 1 instead of being a six-game speed bump for the Washington Capitals in Round 2.
The Penguins beat the Florida Panthers 5-1 on Tuesday. It wasn’t a pretty effort. The Penguins were lured into another wide-open game after getting a 2-0 lead. The PHN Extra Report Card wasn’t kind to several performances but instead of losing a lead, the Penguins expanded on it.
“There’s always a fine line between confidence and arrogance. We always want to be on the right side of that,” Sullivan said on Saturday when asked by Pittsburgh Hockey Now if the Penguins swagger had returned.
Yes, the swagger is back, but the overconfidence is not.
It appears adversity finally knocked the stuffing out of the Penguins and they got a good look at themselves in the mirror. They got a really good look and didn’t like what they saw. If the losses weren’t enough of a wakeup call, being at the bottom of the Eastern Conference should have been.
During the Penguins eight-game winning streak and for much of December before that, they were making the right plays, not the feel-good plays. They chipped the puck deep when they were forced and doggedly pursued the puck when they didn’t have it, both of which created the best Penguins forecheck since 2016.
In an in-depth piece for PHN Extra which we’ll publish later, Zach Aston-Reese described the fourth line mindset as “proving a point.”
And what is that point? “That we can play with (the opponent’s top line).”
And the fourth line with Matt Cullen, Riley Sheahan, and Zach Aston-Reese, has injected more grit into the lineup. Their point to prove has been contagious. The line has also helped Sidney Crosby carry the weight of guarding the opponent’s top line (Subscribe to PHN Extra).
During the turnaround and win streak, the Penguins forewent the selfish plays like high forwards lingering in the offensive zone instead covering the point for pinching defenseman. They showed good puck management by holding onto the puck or working down low instead of trying a cute pass for the great scoring chance, which usually fed the opponent’s transition game. Turnovers went down. Scoring chance ratios skyrocketed. Success followed.
Team over self. Winning over all else.
The Penguins coaches have worked exhaustively to drill their messages home. They’ve benched Derick Brassard, Phil Kessel, Bryan Rust, and even Jake Guentzel to drill home the message; this incarnation of the Penguins cannot win games without a persistent effort.
And like the fourth line, the Penguins as a group also have a point to prove. While headlines focus on uber-talented Toronto or the 800-pound gorilla of the Eastern Conference Tampa Bay Lightning and hated rival Washington lifting the Stanley Cup, the Penguins exited the national conversation with a disastrous November.
But it’s not the start of the season which counts most, it’s the end. The Penguins finally appear to be set up well for the arduous task ahead.