CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa. — When speaking about several of the Penguins’ key contributors to their first-round victory over the Flyers, Mike Sullivan leaned on one particular pronoun.
Two letters, that’s all.
“He’s one of those guys who has ‘it,’ ” Sullivan said of Jake Guentzel in particular, and that was even before Guentzel’s four-goal game in the Game 6 clincher.
The coach spoke in a similar vein after his team won its ninth consecutive playoff series.
“They have the ability to play their best when the stakes are highest,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got a number of guys on this team (like that) and that’s why they’ve accomplished what they’ve been able to accomplish. They tend to embrace adversity. They embrace the struggle. Even when we don’t get it done in Game 5 and we have to come back to Philly, which is a hard place to play. Our team just doesn’t get rattled.”
As I wrote earlier in the week, the transformation this franchise has undergone in the past three years is immense. And, yes, they’ve gotten better in literal hockey skill, but their mental fortitude continues to impress. That applied double for Game 6 in Philadelphia, after the Penguins dropped Game 5 at home on a late goal.
At the start of the decisive game of the series, an absolute fire drill of a shift in the defensive zone led to Sean Couturier‘s icebreaking goal for the Flyers. About an hour later, Scott Laughton‘s long drive fooled Matt Murray and Game 7 appeared imminent. Did I mention Carl Hagelin was lost to injury in the middle of the game and Evgeni Malkin never even dressed?
Final score: Pittsburgh 8, Philadelphia 5.
On to the next one. They did it again.
What’s the Secret?
“I think experience of the past years really helped in that game,” Derick Brassard told me after Wednesday practice at UMPC Lemieux Sports Complex. “Even down two, we didn’t panic. We kinda stuck with it. There’s never any doubts in this dressing room. In between periods, we knew we (could) come back. We know we have a good team that can score some goals, so it’s just fun to be part of.”
Brassard seems like as good of a reference as any to the Penguins’ transformation in recent years. Brassard was a member of the Rangers teams that knocked out Pittsburgh in the 2014 and ’15 playoffs and battled most of his new teammates as a Senator in last year’s seven-game Eastern Conference final.
“It’s good to be on the good side,” Brassard said with a slight smile. “It just takes a lot of character to come back like that and score a lot of goals.”
For what it’s worth, the players I spoke to on the subject seemed to indicate that a team wants to be relaxed, but not too relaxed, in order to perform in amplified settings like Wells Fargo Center last Sunday, Bridgestone Arena last June, or even in the supposedly friendly environs of PPG Paints Arena.
Emotion — both positive and negative — can be good for motivational purposes, but it can easily overcome one’s better judgement. To the Penguins’ credit, that didn’t happen in Game 6.
“It was pretty intense,” said Riley Sheahan, who was assigned a 20-minute workload in the clincher. “Guys were all engaged. I think we did a good job keeping our composure, even when we were down a couple of goals. Then we got up and I think the goal they scored at the end scared us a bit, too. We just did a good job staying composed. That starts with the leadership here, and the coaching staff did a great job, too.”
‘Composed’ is a good word for the optimal mental state in pressurized positions. ‘Balanced’ is another one.
“It’s a mental thing more than anything,” Matt Murray said. “Just competing and being relaxed at the same time. Not being overly intense or putting a lot of pressure on yourself, that type of thing. It’s all mental, so you can improve upon it for sure.”
Learn As You Go
Not that Murray wilted at all in his first playoff experience two years ago — in fact, he did the opposite — but he said he feels better equipped to handle the high-stakes games now than he did during his best impersonation of Ken Dryden.
Justin Schultz simply shrugged when I asked last week why this group of players has built up a protective shell against all the outside noise that’s inherent to this time of year. But while he might not know the origin of this new Penguins zen, he says it’s easier to find now than it was two years ago, when he was a playoff rookie and was sheltered by the coaching staff.
“You just get more comfortable on the big stages,” Schultz said Wednesday. “It’s a loud rink, high intensity. It’s a lot of fun to play in those games. You’ve just got to learn how to embrace it.”
All of which leads me to another question? Is it possible to unlearn grace under the gun? Not that Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang or Malkin should shoulder most of the blame for playoff failures from 2010-15, but it’s worth asking what’s changed over the past two springs.
According to Crosby, it’s a matter of makeup. Simply said, you never know how a group will react to adverse circumstances until they … experience adverse circumstances.
“I think it’s probably been a little bit different,” Crosby said, referring to the composure of the two recent Cup teams. “It just depends on your team makeup and obviously the experience, too. That goes a long way. The bottom line is you learn, whether you learn from years past or you learn game by game. If you’re someone who’s in your first year of playoffs, you’ve got to speed that process up a little bit more. It just comes down to knowing your identity and giving yourself a chance to win.”
That could be the answer, too. The players believe in the game plan put forth by Sullivan and Co. and they believe they have the roster built to maximize said plan. Add in all the positive feedback over the past 54 playoff games, 36 of which have been wins, and you get a team that coolly silenced an arena full of frothing Flyers fanatics Sunday afternoon.
Rediscovering the Right Stuff
It reminded of a similar scene in that same building nine years ago, when a Penguins team on its way to a championship overcame a multi-goal deficit in a Game 6 to advance out of the first round. Sunday’s comeback didn’t have a Max Talbot T-shirt moment or anything, but it was just as impressive.
Ironic, too, that on a day that saw the Penguins pump eight goals into the Philadelphia net that a penalty kill stood out as the pivotal point. That three-on-four survival in the third period wasn’t lost on Brassard, who was rooting on his ‘mates from the bench.
“Those guys are doing it and that’s why they’ve won the last two years,” Brassard said. “Everyone’s talking about Sid and Geno and the core of this group, but those guys are killing the penalties and doing the hard things.”
Try as we might, we still haven’t gotten to the ‘why’ behind the Penguins’ collective lift at this time of the year, if there even is such a thing. Maybe it’s best to hone in on one guy, like the one who has 19 goals in his first 31 NHL playoff games.
I moseyed over to Casey DeSmith‘s locker stall, figuring that he just got done watching from the best seat in the house, with the added bonus of insight that only a goalie who faces Guentzel in practice could have. DeSmith spoke of modern-day hockey heroes like Justin Williams, who won three championships and garnered a reputation as a ‘big-game player’ despite a playoff points-per-game average (0.67) just nominally better than his regular-season rate (0.62).
Not to besmirch Williams, a fine player by any measure, but I’ve always been skeptical of a player ‘raising his game’ in the postseason. However, DeSmith’s explanation of why he thinks Guentzel has succeeded in the playoffs at least makes some logical sense.
“I think it’s his hockey sense,” DeSmith said. “It’s so tight out there but he’s able to find the open ice and know where the puck’s going to be before it gets there. With how he’s able to read plays, I think it puts him in positions to get goals.
“He’s a finisher. He’s really good around the net, but I think it’s his hockey sense that sets him apart in the playoffs.”
Ask the Captain
DeSmith also brought up Crosby’s name as one of those “it factor” guys. I wasn’t about to argue with six goals and 13 points in the first round, one point shy of his career high for the most in a single series. Still, Crosby is one of the best in the world, maybe still the best, so we should probably expect him to produce like that.
On the other hand, Crosby has twice endured eight-game goal droughts in his long playoff career, to say nothing of team-related frustrations earlier this decade. If anyone knows that success isn’t a given at this time of year, it’s him.
That’s probably why he chuckled at a question regarding the Penguins’ apparent sense of calm with everything on the line.
“Yeah, maybe that’s the way it’s looked on the outside, but I can think back to some situations where we were a little uneasy,” Crosby said. “But you rely on the guy next to you and the next group that goes out there. It takes a team. I think everyone’s gotta kind of play their part in it.”
The hope for the Penguins, or any team that shows a crunch-time steeliness, is that this sort of behavior becomes self-perpetuating.
“I think any time players who are around other players who have success, it’s a great opportunity to learn, for all of us,” Sullivan said, taking a short break from his preparations for the Capitals to speak with reporters. “I think our young guys can watch how our veteran players carry themselves: Their approach, their mindset, their work ethic, their attention to detail, their willingness to control what they can to be successful.
“That’s what it takes to optimize a player’s career. That’s what it takes to win in a high-stakes environment.”