Swagger was the word used around the Pittsburgh Penguins for weeks while they stumbled and struggled, NHL opponents gobbled up their defense and erased multi-goal leads. Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan routinely said his team lacked its swagger. Not long ago, they were in the Eastern Conference basement. Now on an eight-game win streak, they are tied with the Washington Capitals atop the Metropolitan Division.
It’s been a steep climb. Almost straight up.
“I think (the swagger) is back. When you win games it builds confidence. Confidence builds swagger,” Sullivan grinned.
Winning hasn’t been an issue for the Penguins, lately. They have won eight in a row and 13 of their last 16. While Pittsburgh Hockey Now crisscrossed the locker room looking for players to discuss swagger, another reporter was doing the same trying to pinpoint the moment in all turned around. Players seemed equally uncomfortable or non-committal about either question.
Sullivan was not as shy.
“There’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance, and we always want to be on the right side of that. And I think that goes back to the leadership we have. I think we have a group that carries itself with humility,” he said. “Anytime you go through adversity, it makes us better people, it makes us a better team.”
The Penguins had a few doses of adversity this season, and last season, too. They lost defenseman Justin Schultz just four games into this season. The rest of the league seized upon the Penguins stature for motivation and collectively brought their A-Games against the Penguins. Starting goaltender Matt Murray struggled mightily, as well.
Before his recent tear, Murray was well below .900 save percentage, going as low as .877 which is even less than abysmal for a starting goalie. Like the team, Murray has responded to the challenge with a vengeance.
“If you play hard, play the right way, we’re probably going to have a chance to win most games. So, having that confidence and just playing with a little bit of grit, too,” Murray said was vital to the Penguins surge. “You know, having a little chip on your shoulder.”
The players were very humble when asked if that swagger has returned. Murray was visibly uncomfortable when I asked the follow-up question–is that chip on your shoulder back? He paused, he put his head down, he rubbed his neck, he shifted position. It wasn’t the intention to make him uncomfortable, but it was interesting.
“It’s not really something concrete. You can’t really talk about it that way. I wouldn’t say. I don’t know how to answer that,” Murray smiled, essentially conceding the answer.
Yes, the swagger is back. To answer stridently would be to veer into the arrogant or obtuse. Recall last season, the Penguins never lost their confidence which became a detriment. As losses and poor performances piled up, they returned to repeated phrases like, “We know we’re a good team,” and “We know how to win.”
Unfortunately for the Penguins, the process of reassuring themselves allowed bad habits to overcome their game. When the Washington Capitals pushed them hard in Round 2, the Penguins bad habits were still there. The playoff pressure was not an antiseptic.
This season, the Penguins picked up where they left off last season. They hovered around .500 for months. Perhaps it was the Eastern Conference basement, or the realization the Eastern Conference now has a deep enough bench that messing around much longer could be disastrous and players could be in new homes, soon. Perhaps it was the spark of Patric Hornqvist promising things would turn around. No matter how bleak the November slide got, Hornqvist promised it would turn on a single shift.
Then he scored a hat trick and the Penguins have been winning consistently ever since.
Defenseman Kris Letang has seen the highs and lows of this generation of Penguins. He has been there for everything from the 2008 Stanley Cup Final loss, the 2009 victory, the fall of the Dan Bylsma era, the depths of the Mike Johnston era and the Mike Sullivan led resurrection. Letang is part of that leadership group which Sullivan referenced.
“I think we’re playing well,” Letang said as he shook his head. “The word swagger, you can use it the way you want. I think guys are playing with swagger. They’re confident.”
But Letang also cautioned against that arrogance, though in different words, “I don’t think it’s a long-term thing. It’s a thing you have daily and you lose it when you start losing confidence in your abilities. We’re playing well as a team and we have to keep it going.”
The Penguins won’t win the next 41 games and more adversity figures to follow but for the first time in over a year, the Penguins are winning games with four-line depth, great goaltending, defensive effort, and sea-worthy special teams. When the next challenge is presented, there are more than a few players ready to meet it.
That is swagger.