Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, center, stands behind his bench during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh, Sunday, March 26, 2017. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Most of coach Mike Sullivan's speech to the Penguins at the end of Tuesday's practice at PPG Paints Arena reached only his ice-level audience, but one particular phrase carried into the stands of the empty venue.
“We have enough,” Sullivan firmly repeated during a message about the team's chances of competing down the stretch.
Outside the organization, whether the Penguins have enough healthy players to rise above Washington and Columbus in the Eastern Conference standings or to even reach the playoffs with positive momentum, is a debatable matter.
Seven regular-season games remain for Sullivan's team, including Wednesday's 8 p.m. showdown against Western Conference leader Chicago. Seven lineup regulars — Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Carl Hagelin, Jake Guentzel, Olli Maatta, Trevor Daley and Ron Hainsey — are injured, and Conor Sheary and Chad Ruhwedel could move that total to nine.
Washington holds a three-point lead in the standings with eight games left. Columbus sits in a tie with the Penguins and has an additional game at its disposal.
Consecutive days without a game will not come the Penguins' way again before the season's end.
Those are big-picture problems. Sullivan, not one to pity himself for challenging circumstances, believes attention to little details is a solution that can catapult the Penguins back into the role of Cup favorite. That's why he continued to teach rather than simply tend to his herd at Tuesday's practice, just the second to follow a day off since the start of March.
“Our experience has been that you don't just flip a switch and turn it on,” Sullivan said.
“As long as our focus stays on those (details), then our team will be in the optimal frame of mind here going down the stretch.”
At one point during the practice, he stood next to the crease with a half-circle of players around him and exhibited how he wanted defensemen to box out skaters. Then a box-out drill ensued.
For Brian Dumoulin, the opportunity to watch Sullivan offer hands-on instruction conjured memories of college, when far more of a week went to practicing and improvement than game play. Asked to anchor the Penguins defense with Letang out, Dumoulin has found opportunities to stop and concentrate on improvements few and far between during his second full NHL season.
“You've got to take advantage of those days,” Dumoulin said of Tuesday's fine-tuning session. “There's no winding down right now.”
A season ago, the Penguins peaked at the end of the regular season, and all of the players recognized it. During their final 25 regular-season games, they generated more five-on-five offense than any team in the league and ranked in the top five in even-strength shot and chance suppression.
This season, their offense is elite, but they're struggling to slow opponents. Yet they hold out hope for a rebirth of that dominant two-way play they experienced a year ago.
“We have our identity. That's established,” Bryan Rust said. “But I think guys are always looking to improve that little bit in one area of the game or another. … During the year, it's more the gradual things, the little tips you take here and there from guys on the team or coaches. You try to take all of that and keep building. For me personally, there's never been that one big (revelation) moment during the season.”
Carter Rowney has grabbed Matt Cullen on the bench to quiz the veteran on faceoff techniques. Justin Schultz has met with Sergei Gonchar between periods for quick blueline lessons. Studiousness happens even when the schedule abounds with games.
Recent days off gave Dumoulin, Rowney, Rust and the Penguins other former college players chances to catch the NCAA hockey playoffs on television, and while nostalgia for simpler times arose, none considered their current team's grind too much to bear.
“You look at (college hockey), and you've got to win four wins to become the champion,” Dumoulin said.
“You've just got to get streaky at the right moment. In the NHL, you've got to be the better team to move on.”