I’ve never been a ‘New Year, New Me’ kind of person. But, that phrase fits the Pittsburgh Penguins perfectly right now, as they’re legitimately a new team as we turn the calendar to 2016. Newly hired head coach Mike Sullivan has put his mark on this lineup and so far, so good. The Penguins are now 4-1-1 in their last six games and hitting on all cylinders. In two consecutive games against teams currently in the playoff picture, the Detroit Red Wings and New York Islanders, the Penguins have netted 10 total goals and put together back-to-back 5-2 victories.
The improvement under Sullivan is both noticeable to the naked eye and evident in the numbers. The Penguins are aggressive, assertive and maybe most importantly, having fun while playing an offensive brand of hockey. There is a lot of structure with Sullivan at the helm but not to the point in which he puts a leash on superstars like Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Pittsburgh is full of dynamic offensive talent and recently, they’ve been able to showcase it. Dare I say that this team is fun to watch again?
Pittsburgh Penguins Improvement – By the Numbers
There are a lot of numbers that reflect how much this team has improved overall since Sullivan took over. They lead the league in both shot-attempts and actual shots on goal per 60 minutes of play since he stepped in. They’ve also increased their scoring chances by roughly 10-percent. And, while many were concerned that the Penguins may be neglecting the defensive side of things, they’ve actually improved in every defensive statistic under his watch. Their recent record isn’t a fluke but rather an indication that the team is beginning to settle in and play the right way, according to Sullivan’s vision.
Of course, the true test of whether or not a team is going to be successful isn’t completely evident in their underlying numbers. They still have to score goals. The Pittsburgh Penguins, with Johnston running the show, reflected a goals-for average of 1.9 goals-for per 60 minutes of play. There wasn’t an immediate change in production under Sullivan but through their last six games, they’ve scored five goals three times. Again, an indication that they’re figuring things out with their new leader. A productive power play sure doesn’t hurt in that regard either.
When Sullivan met with the media after deciding how he would divvy up responsibilities, he was clear about the fact that he’ll personally handle the power play going forward. That unit has cashed in on nine of their last 23 opportunities, which is good for a 39-percent success rate. To put that into perspective, consider that the league’s best power play is clicking at 28.6-percent. After a decent amount of experimenting, Sullivan landed on a power play unit that essentially mirrors the personnel that Johnston used but the difference is their approach and commitment to shooting. That commitment to shooting was evident on Crosby’s second power play goal last night against the New York Islanders. No toying with the puck, no hesitation, no chance for goaltender Thomas Greiss.
Crosby is playing with a confidence unlike anything we’ve seen so far this season. In fact, Pittsburgh’s stars are beginning to shine bright. If this team is going to go anywhere, they’ll need the likes of Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and Phil Kessel to carry the load offensively. They’ve recently started doing exactly that and they look as if they’re having fun while doing so. All of a sudden, that potent Penguins offense is living up to its reputation.
Individual Production Soaring for the Penguins
Have you noticed a difference in Crosby since mid-December?
Sidney Crosby 2015-16:
Under Mike Johnston: 28 GP – 6 G, 13 A = .68 ppg
Under Mike Sullivan: 9 GP – 5 G, 5A = 1.11 ppg#Pens
— 2021 Jim (@SportsingJim) January 3, 2016
Crosby’s slump has been extremely perplexing. Was he unhappy with the coaching staff? Was he battling an injury? Was it mainly due to his line mates failing to generate offense? At this point, it doesn’t matter. If Crosby can continue to produce at 1.11 points-per-game, which is on par with his career average, the Penguins are in very good shape as they approach the home stretch. He isn’t the only individual stepping up under Sullivan’s tutelage, either.
Malkin has continued his dominant play and is now ninth in the league in scoring. He has been consistent for most of the season and carried the burden offensively while others struggled to get going under the Penguins’ former coaching regime. Recently, he has received help on the score sheet but that doesn’t mean he’ll slow down. Kessel, who landed back on Malkin’s right-wing after being shuffled around the lineup for a few games, is also finding success in Pittsburgh’s new system.
Kessel has three goals and four points in his last six games. He has been more engaged and looks to be working harder away from the puck than any other point this season. It’s safe to say that he’s providing the Penguins with what they expected when they acquired him and should continue to produce in the Penguins’ aggressive approach. And, the good news for Pittsburgh is that their offensive superstars aren’t the only ones producing.
Since returning to the lineup from injury, Letang has recorded eight points in six games and looks like the Norris-caliber defenseman that he was before missing the final few weeks of 2014-15 with a concussion. The play of Trevor Daley and a healthy Letang gives the Penguins a much better blue line than they had just a few short weeks ago and could be the key to their success. Of course, that all depends on whether or not Letang can remain in the lineup. Without him, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a completely different team and not in a good way.
Last season, the New Year brought nothing but bad news for the Penguins. In fact, when the calendar changed from 2014 to 2015, it seemed that the Penguins fell into an uncontrollable downward spiral that continued into this season. Needless to say, Pittsburgh is very happy to welcome a fresh start.
Currently, the Penguins are streaking as we head into 2016 and playing very good hockey. The lineup seems to be settling in and Sullivan is finding the line combinations that he sees fit. Marc-Andre Fleury is healthy again and Matt Murray recently showed that he can be relied upon if needed. In other words, it’s night and day compared to last season and the start of 2015. While it’s far too early to consider the Penguins a changed team, they’ve shown signs of life and look to be poised for a strong final four months of the regular season. Can they sustain this as they fight and claw to get back in the playoff race? As long as they stay healthy, I see no reason they can’t.
Pittsburgh Penguins writer for TheHockeyWriters.Com and PittsburghHockeyNow.Com. Youth hockey coach, and student of the game.