Saturday, June 04, 2016

Penguins living and winning by Sullivan's 'just play' motto

June 3, 2016

Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gives instructions during the first period in Game 2 of the NHL hockey Stanley Cup Finals against the San Jose Sharks on Wednesday, June 1, 2016, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

Barely a year ago, fairly or not, the Penguins were perceived as a whiny, often-combustible bunch of underachievers. And they knew it.
Take their treatment of officials. I remember asking Kris Letang before last spring's playoffs about the team's less-than-flattering reputation. The Penguins were known for constantly complaining and turning officials against them.
“It's the way people see us,” Letang said. “For years, and we're not afraid of saying it, we've been all over the referees, yelling and complaining. I think we've made strides. But I think it's not perfect yet.”
Well, it's still not perfect. But it's getting there fast. Credit coach Mike Sullivan with the primary assist. Among his many contributions, Sullivan found a way to direct his players' emotions toward the proper channels.
The first step was to make sure they actually had emotions.
When he arrived, Sullivan encountered a somewhat lifeless group. He wanted fire, and he wanted his captain to ignite it. He let it be known he preferred the possessed Sidney Crosby, wearing passion on his sleeve, to the blank-stare-on-the-bench Crosby. He wanted that kind of energy up and down his roster, and if that meant sometimes overshooting the mark, so be it. Coaches always could step in to temper the flames.
Once spirits rose, Sullivan began pounding home the idea of just playing the game. He was well aware of the Penguins' raps. He knew they had come undone in playoffs past. He knew they were seen as fragile and volatile.
The solution?
“Just play.”
The Penguins began to live by that motto. Sully's saying has even been printed on the backs of T-shirts players wear around the locker room. You might have seen him pounding home the idea during his pregame speech before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final.
As players sat at their stalls, Sullivan delivered the following message. He wasn't kicking garbage cans as he talked, either. Just a firm, even delivery:
“We can't be off the charts so high that we lose our focus. We need controlled emotion. We need laser focus. Regardless of what happens out there, good or bad, we just play. That's what we've done all season. We just play. OK? That's why it's on the back of your T-shirts, right? Let's play fast. Let's play fearless, and let's have a relentless attack. Let's get Game 1.”
So they did, taking only two penalties. In Game 2, the Penguins were called for only one, rendering San Jose's vaunted power play useless. Since the beginning of the Tampa Bay series, the Penguins have committed two or fewer penalties in seven of nine games.
But this is about way more than staying out of the box. It's about having the maturity to disregard potential distractions and potentially catastrophic in-game events. Like blowing a 3-1 lead after three delay-of-game penalties against the Capitals in Game 6. Or facing elimination against Tampa Bay. Or playing without your top two goalies or your No. 1 defenseman. Or your No. 2 defenseman. It's about setting vengeance aside after injurious hits like the one Ryan Callahan put on Letang or Patrick Marleau put on Bryan Rust.
Most symbolically of all, it's about Crosby shrugging off two punches to the head from Joe Thornton, one of which knocked his helmet off. Sid didn't even look at him.
The Penguins have learned the best form of vengeance is winning. They aren't perfect, by any means. Letang and Evgeni Malkin still lose their minds at times. But you know who they are starting to resemble? Those old Red Wings teams.
Remember in 2008 when the Penguins spent entire games trying to stir up trouble, and the Red Wings flicked them aside like gnats, or, as Brooks Orpik put it, “laughed at us?” Well, these Penguins are more like those Wings than one could have ever imagined.
You know a coach's message is getting through when all the players start talking like him. The first player I ran into after the game Wednesday was Rust. I wondered what was said before overtime, if anyone stepped up with a message after San Jose's dramatic tying goal.
“No, not really,” Rust said. “We were talking like it was any other intermission. We knew if we played the right way, we'd come out on top.”
In other words, no need for drama. Just play.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him

No comments: