Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) watches as his shot heads into the net for a goal as Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy (88), of Russia, is unable to defend, during the second period of Game 6 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Eastern Conference finals Tuesday, May 24, 2016, in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Brian Blanco)
The big picture stakes Tuesday in Tampa were obvious. It was win and come back home for an all-or-nothing Game 7, or lose and spend the off-season wondering. We know now that the Penguins won, primarily thanks to their big money players, with Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang all tallying goals. Evgeni Malkin racked up an assist and made a bunch of little plays to help carry the day for the Penguins.
A side storyline, though, revolved around Mike Sullivan. Would the Penguins’ coach, a man whose ability to get the best out a sometimes mercurial roster arguably was his best attribute during the regular season, be able to get a high-level performance out of his team when its back was against the wall for the first time all season?
The answer was a resounding yes.
The Penguins, who hadn’t won a game when facing elimination since 2012 against Philadelphia, delivered a sound, opportunistic performance. It was one in which they held Tampa Bay down offensively until some near-fatal hiccups in the third and found ways to crack the Lightning’s phenomenal goalie, Andrei Vasilevskiy.
Aside from a first-period retaliatory slash by Malkin, the Pens were disciplined. That was one thing that they had not been in pressure situations. They were steady and stuck to their game plan, for the most part. They waited for the opposition to make a mistake instead of handing the Lightning quality scoring chances on a silver platter. Most of all, though, the Penguins simply brought their “A” game for long enough to secure a win. That hasn’t happened in the past when there have been trying times.
Sullivan’s influence was most noticeable in the play of his stars. Fair or not, there were fans and media calling for Crosby and Malkin to do far more to help a winning effort. There were multiple different stats to help explain their relative ineptitude in elimination games of late. Plenty was made of the fact that Crosby, Malkin and Letang declined to speak to the media after Game 5. Letang was an atrocious minus-4 in that game, as well.
Things weren’t great for the highest-paid guys on the team. They could have folded, given the circumstances. They did not. When the Penguins did go into a “prevent defense” style shell and surrender two goals of a three-goal lead, Matt Murray, a man who often has played like a star in these playoffs, held the fort. Bryan Rust iced the game with a calm, cool and collected breakaway goal.
In getting his stars to bring it when everything was on the line, and in getting high-end work from several role players, Sullivan displayed what probably stands as the most important attribute for any successful pro coach: the ability to motivate, inspire and elicit the best possible performance out of paid professionals.
In high school and college sports, the coaches have all the power. Players not being paid means that they are subject to the whims of the coach. In professional sports, all but the absolute best coaches are beholden to star players. The dynamic is flipped on its head in the pros and many coaches, including ones throughout the Penguins’ history, have found themselves on the unemployment line because of clashes with star players.
This game, given the Penguins’ sordid recent history in do-or-die situations, was to be the biggest test of the new attitude Sullivan brought to the Penguins. With everything on the line, Sullivan and the stars passed with flying colors. Their reward? Game 7 at home, something that has been nothing short of torturous for the flightless birds for many years.
After watching Mike Sullivan’s Penguins do what they did Tuesday, I’m feeling pretty optimistic that this time around, they’ll write a much happier ending.