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Penguins Players Feel the Heat; Sullivan Unhappy and Blunt



Mike Sullivan, Pittsbugh Penguins

CRANBERRY — The mulligans are spent. All of the leeway used up. And in a recent analogy used often around the Pittsburgh Penguins room, the runway is getting short.

In fact, the Penguins are out of runway. With 30 games to go and the playoff chase slipping away at an alarming speed, it’s time for answers and accountability. After a few days of jovial excitement surrounding Jaromir Jagr’s jersey retirement, the team gave away a vital game in the final minutes.

In response, coach Mike Sullivan made sweeping changes to the Penguins lineup at practice. Nothing, except Sidney Crosby’s line, and perhaps the fourth line, was spared.

Even Marcus Pettersson was abruptly called to the coach’s office for unknown reasons (it could have been anything, including a pump-up chat–Marcus, we really need you to keep playing lights-out defense. But the oddity underscored the tumultuous day even as TV reporters revisited the Jagr wig story for fluff pieces).

There were big changes at practice, and the stern message sounded like a five-alarm fire … which it is.

Jesse Puljujarvi was removed from the lineup. Reilly Smith was dropped to the third line with Lars Eller. Pettersson was put with Erik Karlsson, and P.O Joseph got the call–and perhaps his best chance this season–on a pairing with Kris Letang.

Sullivan didn’t mince words or parse words after practice. Time is up for everyone, especially struggling defenseman Ryan Graves, who was demoted to the third pairing … or the press box. He skated on both the extra pair and the third pair in practice.

“We’re trying to find line combinations that give us a chance to win. And, what we’ve had here for a while hasn’t produced with any level of consistency, “said Sullivan. ” (We haven’t had) nearly enough consistency that’s going to give us a chance to win consistently. So we’re going to effect some change here and see if we can put some combinations together that can help us.”

Karlsson has been one of the running stories of this season. Much was expected, and much was needed, and if he’s delivered enough is debatable. He has 38 points (7-31-38) in 52 games, which would make most D-men happy. However,  it doesn’t sound like Sullivan feels Karlsson has performed up to full capabilities.

Sullivan didn’t take the bait with a softball question about Karlsson’s impending 800th career point.

“Obviously, he’s an elite player and a really talented guy, and a guy that drives a lot of offense whether 5-on-5 or the power play,” Sullivan said. “That’s what he’s done in his body of work in the league. That’s what he’s done for us. You know, I still think there’s another level of Karl that we’re trying to unlock here; I think it’s an important element of us having success moving forward.”

It was in that vain that Sullivan had no time for talk-arounds or obfuscations. He was direct.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have not been good enough, and he’s done waiting for players to perform to expectations.

The Penguins trail the Philadelphia Flyers for third place by 10 points with four games in hand. They trail the Detroit Red Wings by seven points with two games in hand in the wild-card race.

The Penguin have 30 games to go, but that’s not the deadline unless the president of hockey operations/GM Kyle Dubas plans to sit on his hands through the NHL trade deadline, making no changes, improvements, or recouping assets for pending UFAs.

The stark reality confronting the Penguins is the long-term direction of the franchise. They missed the playoffs last season after faceplants followed stumbles in the second half of the season.

Stumbles, faceplants, and detachment have followed this season, putting the team in a rotten position. The ever-honest Karlsson had a little bit of a reaction when PHN asked if the next three games were essentially now-or-never for the team.

“I think it’s been feeling like that for six weeks, maybe. But yeah, it’s been feeling like that for a while,” said Karlsson. “And it’s tough to play under those circumstances. But that’s the circumstance that we’re in. I think with the group that we have here, it’s been handled as good as we possibly can. I don’t think that we’ve had the result that we wanted. You know, there are various reasons for that, I’m sure. But I think that one thing that I’ve seen is the resilience, and the belief has never really wavered.”

Honest and troublesome. If the team has felt that urgency and pressure for six weeks, how in the world has it come to this? The recent losses to Winnipeg, Florida, Minnesota, and LA surely have at least shaken the coach’s confidence in the lineup he’s put together.

Graves acknowledged the importance of the coming games, though he softened the blow.

“We’re definitely in a win-now mentality. The season is getting shorter, and the games are running out. We need to make moves to get back in the playoffs,” Graves said. “The games in hand, they don’t matter if you don’t win them. If we don’t win the next three games, we’re not going to give up, but yeah, there’s an elevated importance on, honestly, the rest of the season pretty much.”

Those are words that sound nice, but this is a team accustomed to success at the highest levels, who have controlled their fate or weeks 0nly to have given it away. Any team ahead of them could knock them out with a winning streak of their own, including the New York Islanders, whom they face Tuesday at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins’ deadline is not the end of the season unless they earn the right to compete. Otherwise, the fork in the road is the NHL trade deadline, which is much closer. The players might not give up, but another loss or two in the next couple of weeks might force Dubas to do just that.