The Pittsburgh Penguins had 287 man games lost during the 2016-17 NHL regular season. They saw stars like Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang go out for extended periods. They still found a way to win and finished the season with 111 points, second most in the NHL. The Penguins also finished the season as the highest scoring team in the NHL scoring more than three goals a game.
Examining the Health of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh felt they were getting healthy at the right time and got the majority of their guys back before or during the first round series against Columbus. Matt Murray and Kris Letang were the noticeable injuries that the Pens would have to move forward without.
They found ways to mask the absence of Letang for most of the first two rounds. Exceptional play by Marc-Andre Fleury made Murray a back-up and the Penguins looked again to be the Stanley-Cup favorite. The Eastern Conference Finals would change the conversation and push them into uncomfortable line-up adjustments.
Bryan Rust. Justin Shultz. Patric Hornqvist. Tom Kuhnhackl. Kris Letang.
These were scratches from Game 4 due to injury and the Pens had to figure out a way to win without them. Midway through the first period of Game 4, Chad Ruhwedel took a nasty hit up high and never returned to the bench. Unfortunately, it’s become the storyline for the Penguins — playing with five defenseman and unfamiliar lines.
— WBS Penguins (@WBSPenguins) May 20, 2017
When the season began, no one would’ve predicted that Pittsburgh would be depending on Josh Archibald to provide solid minutes in the Eastern Conference Finals or 36 year-old playoff rookie Ron Hainsey to play 20+ minutes a night. Yet, this is the situation the Penguins find themselves in, all the while, still winning. The players continue to fall for Pittsburgh — it seems like one player per game as of late. Yet, the Penguins are just two games away from another trip to the Stanley Cup Finals. What’s the secret?
Mike Sullivan is the Reason
Injuries can ruin a team. For the Nashville Predators, it could ruin a chance at winning the Western Conference and playing for a Stanley Cup. Ryan Johansen is the leader of his team’s offense and without him, the challenge to create scoring chances will be great.
The same could’ve been said for Pittsburgh — Letang is the leader of the Penguins defense and adds a lethal offensive dynamic to his team. Without his presence, they are certainly a different team.
But Letang wasn’t the only player to go down. The Pens have been without Justin Shultz for several games and Trevor Daley has missed period of times due to a lingering injury. Bryan Rust, who has continued to elevate his game on the greatest of stages, is out of the line-up with an upper body injury. Patric Hornqvist who skates on the first line with Crosby has now missed several games. To make a long story short, Pittsburgh is having to give minutes to several skaters who started the year (and in some cases spent most of the season) with the AHL affiliate in Wilkes Barre.
How are the Penguins so close to another Stanley Cup Final? Mike Sullivan is the best coach in the NHL.
He may not be up for the Jack Adams Award but give the man his credit. He is having to make lineup decisions and gameplay strategies to put his team in the best position to win. Not only are the decisions being made, but he’s then tasked with inspiring his guy’s that they have what it takes to win games.
Sullivan’s Resilience Makes the Difference
NHL players are humans like everyone else, it would be hard to keep doubt from entering your mind when you continue to see your starters being helped off the ice. Mike Sullivan is having to instill belief in his guys, and the majority of the time, he’s doing a damn good job.
Sullivan has seen his team get humiliated twice over the last few weeks, first at home in Game 6 vs. Washington, next in Game 3 versus Ottawa. Coaches who’ve lost their locker-rooms ( i.e Dan Bylsma) would not have had the words or the spirit to lift their players out of the dumps and put a winning team on the ice for the next game. Sullivan doesn’t seem to be affected by much of anything and continues to defy the odds and “block out the noise.” His teams are now 12-2 in the playoffs following a loss. That’s great coaching.
He also makes decisions that are best for his team, no matter how they may be perceived to the media etc. This obviously refers to starting Matt Murray in Game 4 over Marc-Andre Fleury. This was a very controversial topic, one that many disagreed with. Who cares? The team responded well and Matt Murray played a great game in-goal. Most teams aren’t in the position to choose from two Stanley Cup winning goalies. The Penguins are and Sullivan, at least after Game 4, appears to have chosen right.
Sullivan Has Penguins Overachveiving
The Penguins shouldn’t be where they are. The Washington Capitals [on paper] were the better team. However, it isn’t a fluke that they are in position to repeat as Stanley Cup Champions. Sullivan has out coached his opponents, and he’s game-planned to win games with the guys he’s had. The difference between the 2016-17 Penguins and all of the teams in the previous decade who fell short of the Easter Conference Final and further, is Mike Sullivan.
Penguins Spell Success Differently
The guys who are skating for the Penguins aren’t scrubs, they are NHL talent. They aren’t the guys that GM Jim Rutherford envisioned having on the ice at this point of the season, though. As a player, you’re capable of overachieving when your coach believes in you and puts you in a position to be successful.
Sullivan understands his players, he understands his team, and he’s got his Penguins in a position to be great heading back to Pittsburgh, even with Ottawa at two games a piece.
So how do the Pittsburgh Penguins spell success?
Smith works full time with Rise Against Hunger, a non-profit set on ending world hunger by 2030. He’s a hockey enthusiast living in Pittsburgh, PA and formerly covered the Pittsburgh Penguins for THW.
Follow him on twitter @BSmithWV