CRANBERRY TOWNSHIP, Pa — Mike Sullivan can’t put his finger on it. Sidney Crosby pondered the situation. After a momentary hesitation when asked the same question, both came to the same conclusion. The Pittsburgh Penguins have a different vibe and feel this season. And it’s for the better.
Last weekend, Sullivan said the team “threw lots of rationalizations around” for their struggles last season. It was a nice way of saying the team made excuses. Tired. Injured. Bad scheduling. In the end, the Penguins fell quietly to the Washington Capitals.
2018-19 will be a different bag. The team is rested. The team is also better.
“If anything we should have a bit of a chip on our shoulder,” Crosby responded. “When you’re trying to defend a championship, when you’ve lost the year before, it’s a little bit of a different mentality.”
Crosby was being diplomatic.
The Penguins have had jump in practice and in preseason games. The combination of veterans like Kris Letang, returning to form and young players trying to win a roster spot, like Juuso Riikola, the Penguins have not been the lethargic, procrastinating bunch which inhabited the locker room last year.
Quotes such as, “We know we can win games,” and “We know we can play better,” became mantras. Except, in the final analysis, they really didn’t. The odd-man breaks and blue line giveaways which plagued their entire season was their undoing against Washington. The series-clinching goal was scored on a defensive gaffe and break.
Go figure. The regular season actually matters.
A quick walk around the room feels different than it did last season. Matt “Dad” Cullen is home. Young players like Zach Aston-Reese and Daniel Sprong are trying to earn playing time while Finnish defenseman Jusso Riikola is amused by everyone’s surprise at his play. There is also seriousness in the room without heaviness or pressure. It’s an earned confidence without the underlying concern which existed last season.
These Penguins aren’t talking about last year. They’re not promising to play better. Instead, the team looks and sounds ready for the season.
“Yeah, I think so (there is a different vibe). I’m not sure I can articulate what that is, but I do feel it,” Sullivan agreed. “I think guys are excited about being back. I think they’re hungry.”
The Penguins have passed the first test of the season–getting through training camp–with flying colors. Or just flying. Last week, Patric Hornqvist lamented the regular season hasn’t already started, which is a sentiment shared by many of his teammates.
According to Sullivan, training camp, “it’s always a necessary evil. Players and coaches are excited to move on to the next step,” he said. “But I definitely think there’s a different vibe this year.”
One year ago, the regular season was called the necessary evil and the Penguin treated it as such. Yet the Penguins still earned 100 points and scored 272 goals. The Penguins have not suffered any significant losses, only additions, like Matt Cullen, Jack Johnson and the kids from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. The Penguins are a better team, and now they have a chip on their shoulder. They’re ready for this season.
“That should be our focus,” said Crosby.