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Penguins Rise to Meet Adversity, Sullivan’s Challenge

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PITTSBURGH, PA - DECEMBER 06: Pittsburgh Penguins Right Wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his second goal of the game with Pittsburgh Penguins Center Sidney Crosby (87) during the second period in the NHL game between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Islanders on December 6, 2018, at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, PA. (Photo by Jeanine Leech/Icon Sportswire)

Without three of their top four defensemen and top-line winger Bryan Rust, and with a ferocious playoff battle afoot, the Pittsburgh Penguins have dominated their last four opponents. Beginning with the Stadium Series game in Philadelphia and concluding last night in Montreal, the Penguins have mostly outplayed their opponents with simple, honest hockey. It appears head coach Mike Sullivan’s message is finally getting through.

And the Penguins are rising to meet the unexpected challenges the hockey gods are hurling at them, while Sullivan is challenging them further.

The Penguins have earned six of the last eight points, mostly without top defensemen Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin. The team won five of six points on their three-game road trip and should have gained all six points if not for a late, fluky goal in Buffalo.

Saturday night Sullivan started Matt Murray again; Murray started both of the back-to-back games. The message was sent.

“He knew this was an important one for us. He was playing back-to-back, it was a good challenge for him and I thought he stood tall in there,” Sullivan said.

Note the subtle explanation by Sullivan. Lost in the praise for Murray’s performance is Sullivan’s coaching psychology. He challenged Murray, just as he has challenged the team.

And the Eastern Conference has been challenging, too. Before the season, or even into November, would anyone have predicted the New York Islanders and Carolina Hurricanes would hold two of the top three spots in the Metro Division? And the same goes for the Montreal Canadiens. It has been a changing of the guard in the Metro Division and the Eastern Conference.

The Penguins embarrassed themselves against the San Jose Sharks about 10 days ago in a 5-2 loss which wasn’t even that close. The Penguins not only flatlined but were mocked by Evander Kane who wandered near their bench during a timeout.

Penguins GM Jim Rutherford acted by acquiring “pushback” in the form of 6-foot-5 defenseman Erik Gudbranson, who was immediately needed as the Penguins lost yet another defender to significant injury, Chad Ruhwedel.

Rutherford and fans are nervous about making the playoffs, and they should be. Carolina has won five in a row, Columbus loaded up at the trade deadline with Matt Duchene and Ryan Dzingel. And Montreal has Carey Price in net, so they are a threat in every game.

Perhaps it’s the perfect formula.

These Penguins seem to relish a challenge.

Without feeling a challenge, the Penguins slept through last season only to find their bad habits followed them into the playoffs. Consider this stretch a purge of bad habits and a call to action.

And so after months of Sullivan imploring his team to play the simple, honest hockey for which their roster has been constructed, and the NHL game now demands, the Penguins are doing it, led by their captain Sidney Crosby.

“He understands the position we’re in. He’s doing all he can to help this team win,” Sullivan said after Crosby posted four points (1g, 3a) against Montreal. “He just plays the game the right way. He plays on both sides of the puck.”

And in Scotty Bowman fashion, Sullivan is juggling his lines on a nightly basis. Sometimes Sullivan makes swaps to challenge players, or as he did last night, the changes are based on matchups. Saturday night, he put speedy, tenacious winger Jared McCann on Crosby’s left side to add speed on the line. Montreal has beaten the Penguins twice this season and speed was a factor.

Speed wasn’t an issue Saturday as Sullivan continued to push buttons, large and small.

The Penguins were shoved into simple hockey last weekend in Philadelphia. The stadium game conditions wouldn’t allow much razzle or dazzle and they lost both Dumoulin and Letang on the same play in the first period. The Penguins had to play with just four defensemen and they resoundingly responded to that challenge until Murray faltered late in the game. They still earned a point in an overtime loss.

The Penguins followed that nearly suffocating performance by squashing Columbus–in Columbus. They also felt they dominated most of the game against Buffalo, Friday night but another overtime loss left a sour taste in their mouth.

And Crosby took just 21 seconds to erase that taste by scoring on the first shift of the game, Saturday.

The Penguins are 2-0-2 in their last four games and they’ll eventually get Letang and Dumoulin back. The Penguins are visibly turning the puck over less, just as they are visibly heeding their coach’s directive to “hang onto pucks, low.” The Penguins are pressuring opponents in all three zones.

McCann stepped forward to intercept pucks to create two goals–one for Jake Guentzel and one for Crosby–Saturday night. Even with a patchwork defensive unit, the Penguins are scoring goals and pushing the play.

The Penguins were shoved into simple hockey by circumstance but they’re receiving the best reward: Success.

If this continues, that nervousness could become excitement.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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