Mike Sullivan and Sidney Crosby. (Photo by Jason Behnken/Getty Images)
We know the Penguins reached the final thanks to a relentlessly speedy attack. But how did coach Mike Sullivan transition this team into what it is now?
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins have become the schoolyard bullies of these Stanley Cup playoffs, and not in the traditional sense. You won't see this team dropping mitts with reckless abandon. Their opponents don't come down with the CONSOL Energy Center Flu, as traumatized teams used to every time they visited the Philadelphia Spectrum in the mid-1970s.
No, these Penguins are a different kind of bully. They tilt the ice to what feels like a 45-degree angle and cram puck after puck after puck down their opponents' throats. They are the modern incarnation of an intimidator: the analytics version, pelting opponents with shot attempts.
Per war-on-ice.com, The Tampa Bay Lightning were one of the NHL's best possession teams, ranking sixth in score-adjusted Corsi percentage, and the Penguins made Tampa look like the exact opposite. The Corsi (shot attempt) margins for Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference final:
Game 1: 71-40
Game 2: 69-44
Game 3: 78-50
Game 4: 65-48
Game 5: 54-56
Game 6: 55-60
Game 7: 64-42
The Penguins controlled the possession game five times in the series. They kept their foot on Tampa's throat regardless of the score. Instead of going into a defensive shell with a lead in the third period of Game 7, Pittsburgh outshot Tampa 10-7. The margin was 39-17 overall.
How does Pittsburgh seemingly put every opponent, even the offensively elite Washington Capitals in Round 2, back on its heels? The straightforward answer is speed. The Conor Sheary-Sidney Crosby-Patric Hornqvist line skates. The HBK line, Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel, really skates. The Chris Kunitz-Evgeni Malkin-Bryan Rust line skates. Fleet-footed Rust put daggers in the Bolts' hearts in Games 6 and 7. The D-corps, from Kris Letang to Olli Maatta, skates. But it's more than that. This team's personality changed completely Dec. 12, 2015, when coach Mike Sullivan took over. They ranked 20th in 5-on-5 score adjusted Corsi and 28th in goals per game at the time of coach Mike Johnston's firing. Sullivan came in, and the Pens were second only to the Los Angeles Kings for the rest of the season in 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi. It seems Sullivan unlocked or unshackled this team.
And, talking to Sullivan and his players on media day at the Stanley Cup final, it's clear this is no shoehorned narrative. Pittsburgh didn't just happen to wake up under a new coach and bust a slump playing the same way they did under the old coach. No. Everything about the franchise's turnaround this season has been deliberate. Sullivan had a specific vision when he came in. Right wingers Kessel and Hornqvist both mentioned Sunday that Sullivan is a serious man. Hornqvist said he likes Sullivan's honesty. But what both players, and seemingly Penguins player, praise most consistently about their coach: his organizational skills. Everything he does is structured and calculated.
“One of the things we tried to do as a coaching staff is instill a game plan where we could play to our strengths," Sullivan said Sunday, his gaze hardened with focus and conviction. "When you look at our core players, they all want to play a speed game. They can all skate. They all have really good hockey sense. They have the ability to move the puck and change the point of attack. So speed in all its forms, whether it’s foot speed or team speed and your ability to move the puck and change the point of attack quickly, and to create opportunities or to create a competitive advantage, is what I envisioned with this group. So we’ve tried to implement some strategies to give these players an opportunity to play to their strengths.”
Doing so seemingly freed the Penguins as an offensive team, especially captain Crosby, who scored 66 points in 52 regular-season games from the moment Sullivan took over. In the New York Rangers, Capitals and Lightning, the Pens faced the NHL's No. 7, No. 2 and no. 12 offenses and overwhelmed each so far in these playoffs. They've obviously done it by being the NHL's fastest team, but it's more than that. It's organized chaos. Left winger Sheary said Sullivan makes every guy on the team "play fast," even if they aren't naturally fast skaters, as the up-tempo allows for quick strikes on unsuspecting D-men. And left winger Kunitz believes the system not only puts opponents on their heels, but also creates space for Pittsburgh players.
"It's reading and reacting and understanding that the faster you can be, the faster you can do things, it puts your teammates in a better situation when they get the puck," Kunitz said. "Gives them more time to make that next play, catch someone else out of position.”
Crosby lauds Sullivan's belief in his players. Yes, they play a frantically paced game, but also a smart one, and Sullivan counts on them to make correct decisions even at breakneck speeds.
“He puts a lot of trust in us to make the play that’s there," Crosby said. "Other times you’ve got to chip a puck and not make the fancy play. It may not seem like a great play at the time, but it’s not going to end up in your net. And there are times when you have to make a play, there’s a clear pass to be made, and he expects you to make that, too. It’s about decision making and giving us the opportunity to make plays when they’re there but also knowing that, if there isn’t something there, not to force it."
If there's a word to describe Pittsburgh this post-season, "relentless" comes to mind. The attacking never stops. It exhausted the Rangers, Capitals and Lightning. And it reflects the stamp Sullivan placed on his team. Crosby said Sunday Sullivan continues to hammer home the message of playing with pace, every game, every day, every practice, even as they've reached the Cup final. He's hard-wired this team like robots.
And perhaps that's why Trevor Daley went from a Chicago Blackhawks castoff, traded for Rob Scuderi in December, to a vital piece of the Pens' blueline, one they'll miss dearly in the Cup final after he broke his ankle versus Tampa Bay. It's why checkers like Rust and Sheary suddenly look like they're here to stay as full-time NHLers. The Pens didn't necessarily have the league's deepest toolbox when the season started, instead drawing criticism for being too top-heavy after Crosby, Malkin, Kessel and Kris Letang. But Sullivan has found the right way to use his tools. And no coach has maximized each individual tool better since the calendar changed to 2016.
"He makes everybody work and do the right things," Hornqvist said. "It doesn’t matter what the number is on your jersey. If you don’t backcheck, he calls a guy out. If you don’t go in front of the net, he’ll call a guy out. He gets everybody on the same page working hard for the guy next to you. When we do that, it’s hard to beat us.”
The San Jose Sharks are Pittsburgh's most formidable test yet this post-season. But, so far, the Pens have made some dangerous scoring teams look ordinary. Will the Sharks become the next victim of the Sullivan Effect?
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin