To say that Mike Sullivan replacing Mike Johnston as head coach was a breath of fresh air for the Pittsburgh Penguins would be a gigantic understatement. Since taking over the Penguins, Sullivan has made his team entertaining to watch and their stars, not named Evgeni Malkin, have returned and are scoring at a rapid pace.
Sullivan came to the Penguins and has fundamentally changed how his team plays. The centers aren’t playing all 200 feet and are able to leave the zone early to utilize their offensive talents. He’s preached puck possession since his first day and almost every member of the Penguins has seen their advanced statistics rise under his brief tenure.
Let’s take a look at the stars’ basic point production to get a sense of how dramatic a change Sullivan has been for the Penguins.
All of the Penguins star players have seen an increase in production under Sullivan and it’s no secret why. He has this offensive-minded team playing an offensive game, instead of a defensive one that Johnston continued to deploy to the dismay of many.
Pittsburgh Penguins Need to Refocus
Under Sullivan, the Penguins have allowed an average of 2.76 goals per game, while scoring 2.857 goals per game. This season under Johnston, the Penguins scored five goals once, while under Sullivan they have done it six times. That is a significant difference in the way this team is playing, but there’s something concerning about their recent play.
They’re getting into offensive shootouts with other teams, forsaking defense and winning by beating them in a scoring race. Some of this can be attributed to Marc-Andre Fleury’s less-than-stellar recent play, but given his phenomenal start of the season, you cannot place too much blame on him.
In the Penguins’ last seven games, they’ve allowed four or more goals four times. In that same seven-game span, they have been out shot once by opponents. It’s not necessarily the number of shots the team is giving up, but the quality of chances they’re giving opponents has been too great recently.
The main problem with the Penguins’ current play is that this is probably their peak of the season. Their stars are not battling injuries and they’re in the middle of the season where points and goals are easier to come by. When the playoff race heats up, games tighten up, players have to struggle through injuries and teams play a more defensive game. We’ve seen this year in and year out and eventually the Penguins goal scoring pace will slow down.
We’ve seen it under Bylsma, under Johnston and we most likely will see it under Sullivan. This is why the team needs to refocus now and place more emphasis on defensive play. Now I’m not suggesting go back to the system that Johnston ran, because it suffocated their best offensive players, but it should be more of a point of emphasis moving forward.
If there’s something ailing Fleury, it needs to be addressed now and not later because backup Jeff Zatkoff cannot be relied upon in the playoffs. Maybe it’s just a slump for their star goaltender or it’s the play of the defensemen in front of him.
The main problem is that the Penguins have flipped from being a defensive force to an offensive juggernaut, without finding any middle ground. You might think “well Crosby will just continue to score goals” but that’s been their strategy before and, eventually, even he can get shut down.