PITTSBURGH — Objects in the rearview mirror are sometimes clearer than what lies ahead. Pittsburgh Penguins head coach flatly stated Saturday the Penguins weren’t honest with themselves last season. They made excuses for and during their start which Sullivan conceded the coaching staff tried to stop but ultimately could not prevent. But this season, the Penguins sound and appear fresh, which has the coach breathing easier.
“(Last year) We threw lots of rationalizations around, the way we played early last season,” Sullivan said. “I think the fact that we played as many games as we did in two seasons could have presented a challenge for the beginning of the season. But it wasn’t anything we didn’t anticipate.”
Indeed the Penguins scuffled through the first months of the season. Sullivan and coaches juggled the lines like a street performer on the day rent is due. Just count the number of Sidney Crosby linemates and the number of wingers who rolled through the third and fourth lines to see the frustration and urgency the Penguins coaches tried to instill. Often, wingers could go from the sparsely used fourth line to the oft-used Crosby line in the first game.
And then back again. Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary, add some Patric Hornqvist, Dominik Simon, and Daniel Sprong. Everyone but Phil Kessel.
Seemingly nothing truly woke the Penguins from their Stanley Cup hangover until the Cup was gone. The collective legs and minds were not at full speed, at least at the same time.
“We tried to be proactive as a coaching staff to get the results that were favorable, but it was a unique circumstance,” Sullivan concluded.
Which makes the Penguins 2018-19 training camp much different. There is competition for prime spots, not between default choices but between legitimate contenders. There is no longer the heavy sighs in locker stalls or slumped shoulders with a promise of future production. Now, there is an eagerness to get to the ice. Nearly the full team showed up one week before training camp for independent workouts.
An eagerness to begin the regular season. And yes, the regular season does matter.
In the first 82 games, teams form habits. Find chemistry. Momentum and destiny come into tangible reality. The regular season matters and Sullivan seems relieved to have an eager squad. They may have planned for the “rationalizations,” but ultimately they didn’t overcome them. Past is prologue, and the Penguins are banking the 2016 and 2017 pasts are the precursor to this season.