Those who dwell in the past are destined to repeat it.
Heading in to their Stanley Cup playoffs first round meeting with the New York Rangers (again), the Pittsburgh Penguins are staring their past directly in the face.
If Pens’ head coach Mike Sullivan has anything to say about it, these Penguins will learn from, but not dwell on, their playoff past. The previous failures of Pittsburgh’s hockey team in the Stanley Cup playoffs are no secret. In 2012, they lost their minds against the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round. Their inability to stop the Flyers from scoring at will notwithstanding.
In the 2013 Eastern Conference Final, they lost their ability to score against the Boston Bruins.
Even in the last playoff series that the Penguins actually won (2014 against the Columbus Blue Jackets), they nearly came unnerved at the prospect of the Jackets erasing a four-goal deficit in the decisive Game 6.
But this team has a different feel to it. There is a freshness with these Penguins. Perhaps even a calm, quiet confidence.
As for the past, well, Sullivan has said it best:
The past is the past.
A handful of players on this current team have never even tasted the Stanley Cup playoffs. Guys like Conor Sheary, Matt Murray (once he returns from injury), Tom Kuhnhackl and Justin Schultz will be appearing in their first postseason.
I wasn’t here for all of that. I’ve never even had a chance to play in the playoffs, or even big games. I’m really not nervous. I’m just excited. I can’t wait.
– Justin Schultz
Then factor in the likes of Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel, Eric Fehr, Matt Cullen and Trevor Daley. Those guys have all been to the playoffs before. Just not with Pittsburgh.
There is no baggage with this team. No one seems to be carrying the burdens of the playoffs gone by.
There is no longer a sense of dread around these Penguins. Rather than expecting the worst, people seem to be hoping for the best.
The new faces on this team have no idea of the disappointment of the previous six postseason runs. They’re just excited for an opportunity to have their names etched into eternity, and they’re all ready to go.
Sullivan Keeping Their Minds Right
Sullivan will be quick to disparage any talk of the past, even the 14 wins in 16 games to close out the regular season.
Oh, and the three consecutive wins the Pens currently have against the Rangers.
One of the things that I love about this group is its commitment to the short term focus of the game in front of them. We certainly learn from our experiences in the past. But we don’t dwell on them. We don’t get ahead of ourselves. We maintain that necessary short term focus. We use all of our energy and our resources to win that game right in front of us. That’s been our approach since I’ve been here. I think that’s what our focus is going to continue to be.
– Mike Sullivan
The no-nonsense, yet less-restrictive approach that Sullivan has had since taking over for Mike Johnston last December has worked wonders for this team. Gone are the restraints of a defensive system that hampered the Penguins’ ability to be creative.
Perhaps more than that approach, though, has been Sullivan’s ability to connect and communicate with his superstars.
Sidney Crosby is once again the best hockey player in the world. He’ll certainly garner some votes for the Hart Trophy. This after being virtually invisible for the first two and a half months of the season.
Kris Letang seems to be discovering, and living up to, all of the potential that was once seen in him. It is in Letang’s maturity that the greatest example of Sullivan’s ability to bond with his superstars shines through.
It was a game against the Tampa Bay Lightning on home ice back on Feb. 20. The Pens lost 4-2 and Letang lost his cool (to the point of actually taking the stick of a Lightning player and using it himself). After the game, Sullivan would have a talk with Letang on the team charter up to Buffalo prior to their next-day matchup with the Sabres.
From that moment on, Letang has been a different hockey player. To the point of being a Norris Trophy candidate.
It’s that mentality that Sullivan has seemed to instill in all of his players. Rather than getting rattled at the first sign of adversity, the Penguins simply keep plugging away and finding ways to win.
Playing the Right Way Already
It can be argued that the Stanley Cup playoffs are a different level of hockey, if not a different sport altogether.
The Penguins needn’t make any significant changes to the game they’re playing right now. In other words, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
In 2012, the Pens tried to goon it up with the Flyers — that backfired. There isn’t a team in these Stanley Cup playoffs that can match the Penguins’ collective team speed. As long as they play the way they’ve been playing and don’t try to outsmart themselves, things should keep right on clicking.
Relentless on the forecheck and speed through the neutral zone with a ton of shots on net. That’s the recipe for success for these Penguins.
I think you find out where your strengths are and what made you successful.
– Sidney Crosby
Right now, it’s about winning one game on Wednesday night.
After that, it will be about winning one game on Saturday afternoon.
The Penguins have been evicted from the Stanley Cup playoffs each of the past two seasons by the Rangers. They’ve beaten the Rangers in their past three meetings of this season. Yet none of that matters. After all, the past is, well …
In the past.