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‘Neat Feeling,’ Sullivan Revels in Penguins with Complete Buy-In



Pittsburgh Penguins Mike Sullivan

Casey DeSmith said the Pittsburgh Penguins gave the New York Islanders a taste of their own medicine with a gritty, defensive-minded type game. We suspect that particular medicine tastes like unflavored Robotusin. The Penguins continued their month-long trend of dictating play to their East Division opponents with a 2-1 win over the New York Islanders at PPG Paints Arena.

It was the injury-ravaged Penguins fourth win in a row and tied them with New York for second place in the East Division.

It seems no matter who is in the lineup, the Penguins game is the same. And so head coach Mike Sullivan departed from his script on Monday night and really let his team have it…Sullivan nearly gushed about the Penguins.

On the Bill Belichick-Mike Sullivan scale of postgame media chat enthusiasm, Sullivan was almost giddy. Sullivan hasn’t always been so talkative or effusive this season. Recall the 116-second presser early in the season.

But on Monday night, Sullivan’s team won their fourth in a row, continued to get secondary scoring, and generally stuffed the Islanders despite missing several key players, including Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen. And Teddy Blueger. And Brandon Tanev.

“It’s fun to coach these guys and watch these guys play the game the way they’re playing at right now. It’s just, you know, everybody’s making contributions. Everybody’s excited to play for one another,” Sullivan began. “You know, I think there’s a certain simplicity to our game right now that makes us harder to play against.”

Even with Sullivan’s best teams, a few players liked to break ranks or deviate from the team system. But this team is a reflection of their head coach, from the Sidney Crosby top line to the fourth.

The current iteration of the Pittsburgh Penguins looks and sounds like Sullivan’s team.

There are several players who are exceeding expectations. Lower line guys like Frederick Gaudreau and Anthony Angello are playing well and even scoring. Zach Aston-Reese is on a career pace. So, too, is Jared McCann, who is filling in for Evgeni Malkin as the second-line center and scoring at a 28-goal pace (over an 82-game schedule). McCann scored his eighth goal in 23 games played on Monday and shows no signs of slowing, either.

“I mean, Sully’s done a great job of kind of giving us our roles, and the players have executed it. I feel like we have guys that are getting hurt every night, and we have that mindset of next man up,” Jared McCann said. “Whether it’s a forward or defense, we’ve got it covered. We come in, do simple things, and we’ve got the skill level on this team that it’s going to take over.”

The Penguins generally keep Sullivan to seven or eight minutes in the postgame. By then, we’re all queried out. But on Monday night, Sullivan kept going. And going. Over 10 minutes. And most of it was genuine praise for his team.

He didn’t actually smile, but his word choices and sometimes his searching for better words conveyed his appreciation for his team.

I’ve been around Sullivan since the beginning. He has stock answers for each player. Sometimes, he’ll add a little kick when the player isn’t performing, but he has a set answer. On Monday night, Sullivan veered off-script, and it was clear he’s enjoying his speedy, blue-collar team with total buy-in.

As Sullivan continued, his pace quickened; not hurriedly but enthusiastically.

“Different guys are stepping up at key times to make big plays or to make important plays. And sometimes they’re big and sometimes they’re subtle, but they add up to winning, right” Sullivan affirmed. “Whether it’s a blocking shot, a winning a faceoff, gaining the line, or it’s a good backcheck. You know, those are some of the subtle plays that maybe go unnoticed to the casual observer, but they’re critical to winning games.”

Winning cures a lot of ills, but in this case, winning seems to be rewarding good habits. The team that couldn’t help but subvert its own system for the last few years is again textbook.

The rushes out of their own zone are as crisp as they’ve been since the first couple of years under Sullivan. He expounded for nearly two minutes on that subject, too.

If you’d like more on the Xs and Os, check out the PHN+ report card. The speed the Penguins are generating isn’t an accident or luck. The good decisions they’re making through the neutral zone are setting up their offense.

You should know me well enough by now to know I’m the opposite of a homer, but these Pittsburgh Penguins have been excelling in important facets which they’ve ignored or woefully underperformed over the last few years.

‘And then there’s big plays like Jared McCann’s goal (Monday night) or Anthony Angello’s goal. And, you know, John Marino’s play on Anthony Angello’s goal,” Sullivan continued.

“So it’s just fun to watch these guys compete hard for one another. And you can sense the enthusiasm on the bench. You can sense the enthusiasm in the locker room. And it’s just a pretty neat feeling to have a team competing as hard as we’re competing and trying to play the game the right way.”

The coach has a pretty neat feeling. Didn’t see that one coming.

I won’t say I told you so, but I did. A few weeks ago, the seeds of this were transformation were beginning to sprout. Don’t worry about Malkin coming back and not playing to the system. He and Kapanen were all over it before they were injured.

Now there is a complete buy-in which the Pittsburgh Penguins have lacked in recent seasons.

Sure, the Penguins have flaws. New York joined the number of teams that changed the game and gained advantage on the Penguins by being chippy.

But the Penguins also added New York to the line of teams which the Penguins have exploited via speed. The Penguins have won six of eight games against the Islanders this season, including four in regulation.

On Monday, the Penguins allowed just six shots in the third period. They clamped down and played a defensive game but still managed to attack, too.

It could vanish, as it did in 2019 when the Pittsburgh Penguins lineup gets healthy. They could struggle, and the praise is for naught. But something is a bit different. Evgeni Malkin and Kasperi Kapanen were playing 200-feet system hockey before they were injured. The defense is pushing from the d-zone out, including John Marino’s two primary assists and end-to-end plays on Monday.

Winning should be a lot of fun, especially when the team is doing it the right way.

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