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Penguins Recognize Change: ‘Not About Who Has the Most Skill Anymore’



PITTSBURGH, PA - APRIL 16: New York Islanders right wing Jordan Eberle (7) celebrates his goal past Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Matt Murray (30) during the first period in Game 4 of the First Round in the 2019 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs between the New York Islanders and the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 16, 2019, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

For the second time in Pittsburgh Penguins franchise history, the New York Islanders humbled the Pittsburgh Penguins. In April, the New York genuinely humbled the Penguins team which assumed it was Stanley Cup timber but worried more about the player in the mirror than the player in the next locker stall. The Long Island fish sticks swept the Penguins in Round One and set about a summer of soul searching and change in the Penguins organization.

New York also wrecked the Penguins three-peat in 1993. And, New York rallied from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Penguins in 1975, but failure was a very Penguins-type thing in that era.

Tuesday, many Penguins participated in what other organizations call a “captain’s skate.” It was an unofficial practice at the UPMC Lemieux complex with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and many others. While other Penguins acknowledged the optimism which surrounds a new season, Penguins goalie Matt Murray flashed his often matter-of-fact honesty to pin the figurative tail on the humbled donkey.

Winning in NHL is no longer a talent show. Less talented teams can win when they buy into the team philosophy.

“That’s how you win nowadays. It’s not necessarily about who has the most skill anymore,” said Penguins goalie Matt Murray. “It’s who is going to play the best team game and not beat yourself. Force the other team to beat you if you’re going to lose.”

“That’s the biggest lesson we can take from last year,” Murray concluded.

For most of the 2018-19 season, the Penguins were too generous. They suffered from turnovers at the blue line and candy-coated efforts. They also displayed a stubborn resistance to fix the errors.

One could forgive Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan for appearing to be blue in the face. His phrases, “play the right way,” or “play on the right side of the puck,” turned into outright scolding of his power play, “we don’t have a defensive conscience.”

Through the fog, the playoffs were not a sure thing for the Penguins. Sullivan benched wingers Phil Kessel and Jake Guentzel at different points during games in December. Perhaps the only thing which worked all season was the Guentzel-Sidney Crosby line. Guentzel popped 40 goals and Crosby scored both 100 points and a Hart Trophy nomination.

The Penguins didn’t hit their stride until March, and did so without as much “talent.” Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang missed significant time and the Penguins responded by playing a team game. They distanced themselves from the Wild Card race and claimed third place in the Metro Division.

However, they faced team-first New York which lost star center John Tavares via free agency last July. New York gained coach Barry Trotz and they spanked the talent-first Penguins.

“They way we handle that can be good for us, honestly,” Murray said. “We’re coming from a place, we got humbled last year. There’s a lot of things we can learn from that.”

The locker room at some humble pie, but the Penguins organization learned the lesson, too. Kessel was dealt for Alex Galchenyuk and prospect PO Joseph. The Penguins free agent acquisition on July 1 was grinder Brandon Tanev.

“Maybe we wasted last year,” defenseman Kris Letang conceded when he spoke of the Penguins aging core of Crosby, Malkin and himself.

If being humble, or learning an important lesson leads to greater things, then perhaps the quick exit will not be a waste. The Pittsburgh Penguins organization sent a loud and clear message that it has learned the lesson. Beginning Friday when training camp opens, we will find out if the team learned its lesson. The blunt adjectives made a good first impression.