Entering the 2019-20 campaign with the NHL’s longest active playoff streak, 13 consecutive appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins faced fairly high expectations, as usual. So far, they have a solid grip on the Eastern Conference’s top wild-card spot, but it hasn’t come easily.
On the surface, head coach Mike Sullivan is in line with expectations or even a bit below. However, if it wasn’t for his coaching, the Penguins wouldn’t be sitting in a playoff spot just days before the holiday break. The team is barely putting out an NHL lineup every night, but Sullivan has continued to find ways to win.
Regardless of who’s on the ice, the Penguins have stayed true to Sullivan’s system. They play fast, dominate possession, and never let opposing skaters catch their breath. When the team finally gets back to full health, Sullivan’s case to win the Jack Adams award will look even better.
Penguins Competing Despite Major Injuries
The biggest storyline for Pittsburgh hockey this season has been how many injuries the team has faced. Within the first week, the Penguins had to deal with long-term injuries to Evgeni Malkin, Bryan Rust, and Alex Galchenyuk. Since then, nearly every major contributor has missed significant time.
Sidney Crosby should be returning shortly after the break but he will have missed roughly 20 games by then and that’s still an optimistic outlook. Before Friday’s road game against the Edmonton Oilers, the Penguins have played exactly 17 games with Crosby and 17 without. Sullivan has managed to keep the ship afloat despite the absence of one of the league’s premier skaters:
With Crosby: 10-6-1 record, 3.35 goals per game, 2.59 goals against per game, 53.5% Corsi, 55.5% expected goals-for
Without Crosby: 10-4-3 record, 3.23 goals per game, 2.71 goals against per game, 52.4% Corsi, 53% expected goals-for
Injuries are a part of the game and something that coaches have to deal with on a game-to-game basis. However, the Penguins have suffered through some horrible luck in the first half. Twice in December (a 5-4 win over the Los Angeles Kings and 1-0 victory against the Columbus Blue Jackets), the team was without its top three centers in Crosby, Malkin, and Nick Bjugstad. Earlier in the season, blueliner Juuso Riikola suited up for a handful of games as a fourth-line winger.
Other injuries include Kris Letang, Justin Schultz, Brian Dumoulin, and Patric Hornqvist. All of them, besides Letang, are expected to miss at least another two weeks. Sullivan can’t survive forever with so many quality NHL skaters missing from the lineup, but if the Penguins can stay relatively healthy in the second half, it will end up looking like the head coach pulled off a miracle.
The two charts above from Sean Tierney of ChartingHockey.ca show just how dominant the Penguins have been. The first shows that Pittsburgh’s defense is shutting down opponents. The team is not allowing other team to get many shots and, when they do, the shots usually aren’t of high quality. The second shows that the real goal-scoring numbers and the advanced stats are matching up; the Penguins are currently passing the eye test and the numbers test.
Anytime a team is consistently in the upper-right “good” quadrant on these charts, things are going well. And when things are going this well despite having arguably the worst injury luck in the league, a lot of credit has to go to the head coach.
Sullivan Handling Tough Goalie Situation
Somehow, the only part of the team that hasn’t been ravaged by injuries is the goalie tandem. Still, while most teams give the bulk of the load to the No. 1 netminder without hesitation, it hasn’t been that easy for Sullivan and the Penguins this season.
The question marks in net began before the season even started when the incumbent backup, Casey DeSmith, was placed on waivers to head to the American Hockey League rather than current backup Tristan Jarry. What seemed like a confusing move at the time has paid massive dividends for Sullivan and general manager Jim Rutherford.
Matt Murray started the campaign with flashes of excellence and exactly what the Penguins were hoping to see after a couple of shaky seasons. He posted a 7-3-1 record in his first 11 starts with a stellar 2.17 goals-against average (GAA) and .924 save percentage.
On Nov. 4, Murray allowed three goals on just 11 shots against the Boston Bruins and got yanked early in the second period. That was the start of his downfall. Since then, the 25-year-old owns a 3-2-3 record alongside a 3.65 GAA and .863 save percentage.
Murray started 18 of the Penguins’ first 22 games while Jarry only saw action when the team played on back-to-back days. Now, those roles have flipped with Jarry starting nine of the last 12 with Sullivan unofficially making him the new go-to netminder.
While some coaches may have left Murray out to dry and ruin his confidence, Sullivan turned the reins over to Jarry and it worked wonders. More importantly, he’s shown confidence in his decision to make the 24-year-old the Penguins’ new top goaltender. In turn, Jarry’s confidence is through the roof and he’s bounced back from every less-than-ideal outing he’s had.
After allowing four goals on 42 shots – granted, most of the goals against were on the defense – against the Kings on Dec. 14, Jarry came back on Dec. 17 and dominated the Calgary Flames by stopping 32 of 33 shots. He posted back-to-back shutouts earlier this month, immediately after giving up four goals in an ugly start against Columbus. Now, Jarry is leading all qualifying goalies in goals-against average (1.85), save percentage (.940), and shutouts (three).
When it comes to Jack Adams voting, the standout coaches usually either lead their team to an unexpected playoff berth or to a very dominant season when the team competes for the Presidents’ Trophy. Right now, Sullivan does not meet those criteria. However, for his Penguins to still be in a playoff position, in arguably the best division in hockey, while playing a handful of AHL call-ups (Sam Lafferty, Joseph Blandisi, Zach Trotman, etc.), Sullivan looks like a miracle worker so far this season.