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The Greatest Lesson Sullivan Has Taught These Penguins

Mike Sullivan has brought some backbone to the Penguins

Mike Sullivan has brought some backbone to the Penguins

The Mike Sullivan era for the Pittsburgh Penguins didn’t get off to the strongest start. Without Marc-Andre Fleury, the team’s backbone, and trying to teach a new system, Sullivan had his work cut out for him. It took him four tries to get his first win behind the bench. When that win finally came, it was against lowly Columbus. Early returns were mixed. An increase in speed and level of play but dicey at-best special teams and a Kris Letang-less defense were still sinking the proverbial ship.

Then something special happened.

The star-studded, offensively gifted machine came to life. Well..,sort of. Suddenly the team was scoring goals at a pace much closer to what was expected. It was as if Mike Sullivan had transformed into Dr. Frankenstein and we were waiting for him to exclaim, “ITS ALIVE!”

Of course he didn’t fix everyone’s wagon overnight, as there are still issues and moments where the entire team cheats to one half of the ice leaving Fleury dry. But this was expected, as the top-6 defense has an average age of 27. Two of the top-4 defenseman have played less than 200 NHL games and Brian Dumoulin missed rookie status this season by a small technicality. No, the number one improvement that Mike Sullivan has made to these Pittsburgh Penguins is that they seemed to find some backbone.

Case in point? The most recent chapter in the Pittsburgh-Philadelphia rivalry. The Commonwealth Cold War, as it’s been dubbed, has led to no good memories for the guys from the west in the recent past and don’t even talk about their play at home. The Penguins, since the Consol Energy Center opened in 2010, had won just two of twelve meetings with the Flyers at home and one of those wins needed overtime.

So of course when the Penguins looked flat and kind of crazy in the first it was pretty par for the course. Because for some reason, despite the fact the Penguins statistically are the better team, the guys in black and gold play like mud against the Flyers. Two power plays, two power play goals for the Flyers and twenty minutes later nothing was different. But Sullivan had had enough. As he’s shown multiple times since he took over this team, he’s the one with the steering wheel and he was ready to turn this car around.

A 0-2 deficit turned into a 4-3 win where Steve Mason was the only reason it didn’t turn into a blow out. But this is just the latest in a string of Mike Sullivan-induced turnarounds. Under former head coach Mike Johnston, the Penguins had come back once in the third period to win in overtime. Under new head coach Mike Sullivan, they’ve come back from a two-goal deficit six times in just over a month. They lost three of those games in extra time. However, the growth they’ve displayed to get back in a game, from a team that would have folded like a house of cards in November, should not be understated.

The key to Sullivan’s game plan, it seems, is to use passion and build on every single positive thing that happens in a game. Get a good shotblock? Sully wants you to get stick taps. Score a goal, you get hugs and high fives. Get a breakaway but don’t score? It’s okay, you’ll get them next time and you get a pat on the pads or helmet. There is no finality to any attempt. You just get up and go again.

At the end of Johnston’s tenure, there was this toxic thought that had sunk into the heads of these highly skilled players. This thought was that if you didn’t capitalize on a shot you were done. Sullivan has worked hard to push this thought out. Just keep trying, just keep pushing and eventually you’ll get one and another and then another.

Think about it this way, currently the Pittsburgh Penguins lead the entire NHL in shots on goal. Their shooting percentage, which was in the bottom three before Christmas, is regressing to the league mean. They actually are top-3 since Dec 21 in offensive output. Yes, some of their issues include trying too hard to make the perfect pass or shot, but some of their early struggles were just sheer dumb luck. Now they know that if they work hard and show up every shift, they can compete and ultimately beat just about anyone in the NHL right now.

Mike Johnston’s Penguins were fragile. They lacked confidence and the wherewithal to survive late, early, big or even little deficits. The Mike Sullivan Penguins are strong. They have confidence in their skills and can weather storms. They know a loss is just one loss, that losing a battle doesn’t mean losing the war.

Leah is a hockey and city life contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. She is a 2013 graduate from the John Curley Center for Sports Journalism at Penn State University.