Smart and thoughtful, Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan both teaches and studies the game of hockey. It’s why – even last summer, before the 2016-17 season even started – Sullivan gave a lot of thought to what might happen in April, right now, when the Penguins’ quest to win back-to-back Stanley Cup championships begins with an opening-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets.
Sullivan knows that it has been two decades since a team successfully mounted a Stanley Cup defence. The Detroit Red Wings won back-to-back championships in 1997 and 1998, and since then, title defences have been minefields for some good, talented teams. Sometimes, the short off-season is blamed – or complacency or fatigue or the fact that defending champions play 82 games with a bull’s-eye painted on their collective backs.
Why then should the Penguins be any different?
“Everybody was writing articles about how repeating hasn’t been done at the start of the season,” Sullivan explained. “My very first comment was, ‘why not us?’ We believe we have a competitive team. We believe we have what it takes to win again.
“Nothing is inevitable – and so we’ve got to go out and earn it all over again. But just like winning isn’t an inevitability, losing isn’t either. Just because history is telling us we can’t do it doesn’t mean that it is so.”
The Penguins have had the sort of regular season that would test a regular NHL team. Injuries have clobbered them, especially on the blue line, where Kris Letang – their offensive catalyst – missed half the season with a variety of injuries and is out for the rest of the year with a herniated disc that will require surgery. Fellow defencemen Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta also missed extended time, as did forwards Evgeni Malkin, Carl Hagelin, Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Patric Hornqvist and Matt Cullen. Thankfully, Sidney Crosby, who missed the first six games of the season recovering from a concussion, has been injury-free since then, and he had another year to remember, leading the league in goals with 44 and finishing second to Connor McDavid in the scoring race with 89 points.
Crosby played in back-to-back Stanley Cup finals a decade ago – losing in 2008 to Detroit, but then knocking off the Red Wings in 2009 – so he knows full well the toll a two-month playoff marathon can take on an organization.
“When you win the year before, everybody kind of measures themselves against you and gets up for your team the following year,” Crosby said in a one-on-one interview last month. “There’s so much expectation that you can’t have a night where your game’s not there, because everybody’s ready for you.
“Then with the amount of hockey you play, you have to keep your energy up. We’ve been going through it all year, not having a full line-up, and maybe that has something to do with playing as much as we did last year. That’s something a lot of teams have to go through. Nobody’s feeling sorry for us. We’ve done a pretty good job of being consistent, which is always a challenge for the team that wins the year before.”
The Penguins didn’t really show signs of a Stanley Cup hangover and far exceeded the 104 points they accumulated last year, a season that featured its own set of challenges. The Penguins were actually outside the playoffs on Christmas of 2015 and had just made a coaching change, from Mike Johnson to Sullivan. This year at Christmas, things looked far brighter. They had 49 points from 35 games, and the only team with a better record happened to be Columbus, a team that stumbled downt he stretch after an exceptional start. But according to 37-year-old veteran Chris Kunitz, a three-time Stanley Cup champion, the Penguins can stil ramp it up to a higher gear.
“I don’t know if our game’s been all that great for most of the season,” Kunitz said. “I think we’ve found ways to win. We’ve got some special players on our team, who – through their individual efforts – can force our team into a win. Or have a goaltender that plays unbelievable for a few nights. So through a combination of things, we have found ways to win, but we’re not satisfied with the way we’re playing. We know we have a level we can get to and once we get to that level, we have a better than 50-50 chance of winning games.”
Letang’s absence will be keenly felt, though Sullivan suggests the adversity that the Penguins have faced thus far this season has made them a resilient bunch, seemingly unfazed by anything.
“We anticipated some challenges this year coming off a championship,” Sullivan said. “We have a lot of guys in our room who’ve played a lot of hockey. I know, for example, Sid only took two weeks off before he was back on the ice preparing for World Cup. That’s the nature of him and how prepared he is and how focused he is on the game.
“Our guys, to their credit, have been responsive to our message. We’ve had nights where we just haven’t had our game. So we tried to address it in a matter-of-fact way and give the players some ownership of it. We’re fortunate because we have a mature group and great leadership.”
Crosby saw it mostly the same way as Sullivan.
“We’ve been pretty good, and that speaks a lot to our depth and different guys contributing,” Crosby said. “When you miss three regular defencemen on the blue line and are still able to keep things on track, that says a lot about the new guys coming in.
“Hopefully, that’s a good trait of our team going forward.”Report Typo/Error