Penguins coach Mike Sullivan instructs his players during practice Wednesday, April 20, 2016, at Madison Square Garden. PHOTO BY CHAZ PALLA | TRIBUNE-REVIEW
A couple of weeks ago, Mike Sullivan sensed something was bothering the Penguins' most gifted player.
“It was a tough time,” Evgeni Malkin said of the days leading to his return from an elbow injury that sidelined him for about a month. “The team was winning, and some media (said), ‘They can win without Malkin.' ”
From inside his office at UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, Sullivan delivered a direct message to Malkin. It was, as Malkin described, “good to hear.”
“He said, ‘You're an important player,' ” Malkin said. “ ‘Don't listen to the media.' ”
Don't look into the spotlight's glow during a second-round Stanley Cup showdown between the Penguins and Washington Capitals. You'll find the likes of Malkin and the teams' respective captains, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin.
You won't find the man who has had the most impressive four months of anybody anywhere in the hockey world.
That man is Sullivan.
And, man, was he the right guy to coach the Penguins.
It didn't look that way after Game 2 of the first round. Sullivan mangled Malkin's return to the lineup, mixing up the Penguins by making a mess of the lines.
In Game 3, however, Sullivan was masterful and gutsy. He handed an even best-of-seven series to a rookie goalie on the road. He flipped his franchise centers' left wingers. He adjusted against the New York Rangers' two-man forecheck by having Penguins defensemen chip pucks into the neutral zone.
He also benched Malkin for the final five minutes.
A day later, during a video review session, Sullivan brought Malkin's defensive mistakes in Game 3 to every player's attention. Later in the day, he publicly suggested some Penguins players did not need to try to do so much and instead play more responsibly.
Earlier this week, Malkin confessed Sullivan had delivered that same message to him after the video session. My guess was that the conversation hadn't gone as well as the one between Sullivan and Malkin before Game 2.
“No, it was good, too,” Malkin said. “Mike was nice. He always is.
“He never pressures you. It's never: ‘You're a bad player.' It's always support.
“In video, he shows you mistakes. But everyone sees mistakes. Me, Sid ... Mike shows everyone you can be better.”
Malkin scored two goals and recorded three assists in the Penguins' dominating victories in Games 4 and 5 that closed out the Rangers. After Game 5, Sullivan approached Malkin in the dressing room at Consol Energy Center.
“ ‘You played good,' ” Malkin said Sullivan told him. “ ‘You played your game good. And you see? You played, and we won.' ”
In ousting the Rangers, the Penguins proved they aren't what they've too often been in the postseason.
They're confident, not cocky. They're poised, not a pendulum. They're fast, not slow. They're a deep team, not overly reliant on a few superstars.
And those superstars are all in.
The Penguins coach has made sure of that.
“Everybody has the same choice,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “Your choice is to be part of the team.
“Mike is what he is. He's intense. He's passionate. What he brings to the table are those things. What he wants is for us to make the right decisions.”
The right decisions are not always easy for a coach to make, and Sullivan speaks from experience. As coach of his home-state Boston Bruins, he cut former college roommate (and best friend) Shawn McEachern a dozen years ago.
McEachern never again played in the NHL. Fired a few months later, Sullivan would wait a long time to get another shot behind an NHL bench.
When he was tabbed to replace Mike Johnston in December, Sullivan anticipated needing to win over the Penguins' nucleus of high-profile players. To that group, which already included Malkin, Crosby and Letang, general manager Jim Rutherford had added winger Phil Kessel over the summer.
It would not have been a surprise if Sullivan and Kessel had clashed early on. I was convinced Kessel lacked the physicality (if not willingness to play in the hard areas) to be a “Sully guy.” One had to wonder if Sullivan had been sending a message the many times he noted Kessel as being “effective when playing near the dots” in the offensive zone.
After Round 1, during which Kessel scored three goals and recorded as many assists, it was no surprise Sullivan supported his resurgent star winger. Coaches say nice things after series victories.
What was shocking was that Sullivan sympathized with Kessel.
“I don't think Phil gets enough credit for the adjustment process he's been through,” Sullivan said. “He's in a new setting. His role is different. There are expectations. He's played with several center men. It's not been easy for him.
“It's also not something he allowed to get the better of him. And he's worked to become an important guy for our team.”
There have been no shortage of important guys for the Penguins this postseason. However, nobody has been more important than Sullivan.
He's much more than an impressive tactician. He's a master orator, a skilled communicator who can connect with the Face of the Franchise as easily as he does a faceless member of the Black Aces practice squad. He pulls no punches, keeps sentences short and has developed a sense of “buy-in,” as defenseman Ian Cole described it, from stars to role players.
There was a time — like four months ago — when it appeared the Penguins wouldn't win again because their best players were uncoachable. The franchise looked lost in a fog of marketing, messaging and mismanagement.
I didn't count on Mike Sullivan, underestimating that his “open communication” could transform the Penguins.
It turned them back into a hockey team. Not just any hockey team, either.
With Sullivan, the Penguins are the hockey team that can upset the best team from the NHL's regular season.