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‘The Essence of a Team,’ Sullivan Enjoying Penguins Spirit

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pittsburgh penguins head coach Mike Sullivan

In his own way, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan is a straight shooter. He doesn’t often spank players in the media but when things need to change, he will explain what must change. Wednesday night after the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 squash of the defending Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, Sullivan figuratively loosened his tie and heaped personal praise upon his team.

It even sounded quite a bit like admiration.

The Penguins have been known as a star-power team for most of the last two generations. From Double Trouble (my ’80s kids explain that one to the younger set) to the Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin era, the Penguins have relied on All-Star talent. First, he praised the grinders and the role players.

“I think it’s so important to us becoming a team. These guys work so hard, they don’t get a lot of accolades for what they do, but they’re real important players for our team,” Sullivan said.

The Penguins are in a seemingly impossible situation as more players keep leaving their lineup with injuries. On Wednesday night, Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson was scratched due to an illness. Patric Hornqvist is out longer-term after a freak practice injury. The list goes on. And on.

And on.

Sullivan couldn’t help but gush, just a little about his new gang which must feel worlds different to coach than trying to teach a shark table manners, as he did last year (another ’80s Penguins reference).

“For me, that’s the essence of a team; when everyone is involved, everyone is buying in. We’re playing for each other,” Sullivan said. “It’s really fun to watch as a coach, when you watch how hard the guys are playing for one another.”

Sullivan singled out Teddy Blueger and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel for praise. Blueger scored an uplifting goal in the first minute of the game and Ruhwedel was shoved into the deep end with a top-four pairing after Johnson was scratched.

“Chad Ruhwedel is a guy, he comes to practice every day, he comes to work every day, and works extremely hard to keep himself ready,” Sullivan said of his spare defenseman who has been pressed into service in a few roles over the past week. “I don’t know if I’ve been around another player who can miss or sit out the amount of games that he does and when he is called upon, he has the ability to be effective for us.”

Ruhwedel was paired with Marcus Pettersson Wednesday night and played nearly 18 minutes.

Despite a two-goal lead Wednesday night, the Penguins were aggressive in the third period. They allowed only four shots on goal in the final 20 minutes, after a rocky second period. Backup goalie Tristan Jarry (is he still a backup?) made several 10-bell saves in the second period then the team put St. Louis away early in the third period.

The win kept the Penguins in a playoff seeding but more importantly within shouting distance of the top three Metro Division teams. The Penguins trail the Philadelphia Flyers by three points for third place.

Perhaps the locker room cliches about just playing hard or ignoring the injuries are true.

Even casual fans can offhandedly recite the Penguins voluminous injury list. Sidney Crosby. Brian Dumoulin. Justin Schultz. Bryan Rust. Patric Hornqvist. Nick Bjugstad. Such injuries would have sunk many teams by now, yet somehow the Penguins have kept afloat in the Eastern Conference. Wins like Wednesday night do more than add a couple of points to the standings. They add confidence and reinforce the heart.

When hope leaves or doubts appear, teams spiral. Somehow, someway, these Pittsburgh Penguins keep digging themselves out of the six-ton excrement pile the hockey gods have heaped upon them. As if injuries weren’t enough, it appears an illness may be spreading through the locker room. Zach Aston-Reese missed practice on Tuesday and did not appear to be 100% Wednesday night. Johnson then missed the game with an illness.

Who knows what malady the hockey gods will dart at them next. But count the Penguins head coach as one of those impressed with his team. The Penguins were soundly beaten last Friday and Saturday. It appeared they would finally succumb to the cavalcade of problems.

Then they beat one of the best teams in the league with a superior effort and goaltending. The Penguins played as the coach likely drew it on the chalkboard. And you can’t fault Sullivan for gushing, just a little.

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Pittsburgh Hockey Now owner, formerly 93.7 The Fan, Sportsnet Hockey Tonight. Catch Dan tweeting @theDanKingerski and the official @pghhockeynow account.

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