Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan wants his team to begin gearing up for the playoffs, right now. Saturday night, Sullivan called out his team’s commitment in serious and real ways even as he maintained a positive spin. There are few things more severe than a coach questioning or demanding buy-in to the team concept and so Saturday night Sullivan drew a line in the sand.
Through the course of an 82-game schedule, ugly losses are guaranteed to occur. For the veteran-laden Pittsburgh Penguins, their willingness to stack ugly losses faster than resounding wins can be as bewildering as it is concerning. As the Penguins enter their bye week followed by the All-Star weekend, Sullivan has had enough of the bad losses, mental mistakes, and selfishness.
“We’ve got to find a way to be a team…that has a clear identity of what it is and how we’re going to play,” Sullivan asserted.”Then everyone has to buy into it. Everyone. To a man, everyone has to buy into it.”
The obvious inference is that not everyone is currently buying in. The eyes can tell that story.
His tone was not loud or bombastic Saturday night after the Penguins gifted the Las Vegas Golden Knights far more Grade-A scoring chances and breakaways than Vegas needed. Sullivan was instead clear and direct, even as he searched for the right words to use in public. His message may have been more stern or colorful in the locker room, but the message he delivered to media filled the room nonetheless.
The Penguins boss has benched star players Phil Kessel, Derick Brassard, and Jake Guentzel at different points over the past six weeks. Sullivan conceded that ice time is the largest hammer coaches can swing to get a player’s attention.
In Guentzel’s case, the pine time was for half of a second period, and the warning was well heeded. For others, it’s been more of a struggle.
Defenseman Kris Letang also offered a warning.
“We have to put in our brain that until the end of the year, it’s going to be a tough fight to get into the playoffs.”
Sullivan is still dealing with maddening issues like Brassard’s inexplicable ineffectiveness as a third line center and Kessel’s mercurial play which can be dynamic one night and damaging the next. The coach has been searching for answers for the stunning lack of chemistry or even ability to cooperate between Brassard and Kessel, and perhaps most distressing, Evgeni Malkin’s frustration which is limiting his play and affecting his on-ice decision making.
Sullivan is directly asking for “buy-in” to an identity and style which is beneficial to the team and not just personally satisfying. For example, eschewing stickhandling at the blue line or trying a cross-ice pass in favor of simple plays to avoid costly turnovers. Sullivan wants puck support, a willingness to play down low and more than lip service to defensive responsibilities.
“We have to be harder to play against. We have to make better decisions with the puck,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to make sure we play a brand of hockey that is playoff ready.”
Last season, the Penguins tried to ignore the regular season. They turned the puck over at their blue line and were often too easy to play. The Washington Capitals didn’t even need seven games to send the champs home. With nine days between games and the symbolic beginning of the second half of the season, Sullivan is issuing the challenge now.
He has spent the first half of the season juggling lines, tamping down fires, and pushing for more from his middle two lines. Not coincidentally, most of those fires also came from the middle two lines.
Perhaps Sullivan could have used a simple expression. It’s time to put up or shut up. And that’s where the Penguins will be in nine days.