PITTSBURGH — The reality is clear for Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan. After suffering through a sideways season in 2017-18 despite the coach’s best efforts to cajole more out of the uber-talented team, the team sputtered to a second round loss. This season has begun in much the same way they spent last season: with inconsistent effort.
And so after Jim Rutherford informed the world he worries “this group has been together for too long,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan had to acknowledge the harsh reality in which the Penguins find themselves.
“When you don’t meet expectations, change is inevitable,” Sullivan conceded. “We’re all aware of that. What’s important is that we react the right way. Control the controllables [sic].”
Now there is a coaching cliche if there ever was.
The Penguins are just 2-4-1 on home ice and have phoned in several performances before the paying crowd at PPG Paints Arena. The Penguins have shown frustration, as Matt Cullen conceded last week.
They have also failed to beat lesser teams like the Montreal Canadiens and New York Islanders. But those teams pushed the Penguins with superior effort. Sidney Crosby jokingly dismissed those worries last weekend:
“We’re not going undefeated, right?” Crosby smiled.
But things are more serious now. Those games were an ominous harbinger and after last season’s muddy efforts, the GM has had enough.
“It’s focusing on what we can. It’s taking ownership for our own game or situations to help our team win,” said Sullivan who has also voiced his displeasure with the course of the season. “That’s what we’re discussing with our players right now. Let’s make sure we bring a certain level of urgency, a compete level and attention to detail.”
A consistent effort has been absent from the Penguins game this season, according to Sullivan. But he easily could have included the last 12 months, as well. Despite vastly improved play from Kris Letang, and dynamic production from Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins are again sputtering. They never did distance themselves from the pack last season and are currently engulfed in the pack this season.
The Penguins are currently out of the playoff seedings and are next to last in the Metropolitan Division, ahead of only the New Jersey Devils. While the Penguins figure to surge ahead, eventually, the organization is not waiting for the situation to become dire. The Stanley Cup window is open, now and it may not be open much longer.
“Our players are well aware of the expectations that are within our dressing room. There’s no higher expectation than what we have for ourselves,” Sullivan said. “We understand it.”
The Penguins understanding of their situation will be tested against the Arizona Coyotes. The Penguins typically perform well against Western Conference foes, former Penguins assistant coach and now Arizona head coach Rick Tocchet has a scrappy group. And those types have given the Penguins issues.
Another loss and the current Penguins group may not last through Sunday. As PHN worked the Penguins locker room, that seemed a reality the Penguins players didn’t want to acknowledge.
And the players will control their destiny. Break through the barriers and win games, they will stay together. Or they will be broken up. Soon.