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Sullivan’s dilemma: how to make the Penguins start caring

The Pittsburgh Penguins have some issues and their coach will have to work some masterstrokes to get them back to their game

NHL: Pittsburgh Penguins at Toronto Maple Leafs Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Do the Pittsburgh Penguins have a problem? Well, it probably depends on how much you want to panic. The team has the air and attitude of one that doesn’t really care right now, which never is a good thing when the calendar is almost April, and oh yeah a playoff berth is not officially clinched.

“Lack of urgency. Period,” defenseman Kris Letang said last night. “When you go into a game against a team that’s young, they’re hungry, they have nothing to lose, they’re going to put it out there. They just worked harder than us. There was no response from our team, and that’s a problem.”

Identifying a problem is a first step, now it will be an interesting time for coach Mike Sullivan to address and get some change. Almost every button he has pushed since being installed as Pens coach in December 2015 has paid off. In spades. He knows this club. And right now he’s not happy.

I mean just look at this picture we tweeted on Sunday against the Flyers. This was Sullivan’s face mere seconds AFTER the Pens scored to take a 3-2 lead. He’s still stewing and pissed they fell behind 2-1 when Philly was allowed a 4-on-2 rush up the ice. Rightfully so, there was almost no dedication or interest in the play.

“We weren’t playing the game with the level of urgency that we need to have success,” Sullivan said after last night’s loss in Detroit. But he might as well have been talking about last week’s 4-1 loss to the Islanders or the early part of the Philadelphia game.

“When you’re not committed to play the game hard and play the game smart, you run the risk of getting beat.”

So what the Pens immediate plans to move forward? Cue a media advisory email this morning

The Pittsburgh Penguins will not practice on Wednesday, March 28. The Pens will return to the ice for a morning skate on Thursday, March 29 at 11:30 AM at the Prudential Center in New Jersey.

Yep, cancelling a scheduled practice. Good move or bad? Well, again it may depend on what perspective you take.

Last night was the Pens fifth game in eight days, they were 2-2-1 in that stretch. While energy hasn’t really seemed to be a big issue, the team has three games in four days starting with tomorrow in NJ, Saturday at home for Montreal and Sunday at home for Washington.

A day off is probably wise here. Hit the reset button. Wipe away the past week and focus on the future. This isn’t the 1980’s where you can just bag skate and throw a trash can in the room and everyone falls in line. Today’s athlete is different and most of this team has long-term and guaranteed contracts that will outlive a coaching staff. Priming for the future is probably going to be more productive than dwelling on the past.

It may seem like the sky is really falling, but the Penguins aren’t really in a precarious situation right now. All it will take is one good effort and a regulation win tomorrow night and their playoff spot will be virtually assured. They have 92 points in the standings and typically in the 95+ range teams don’t miss out, and it would be tough even for them to fall short.

Instead the Pens issues of urgency, defensive acumen, poor performances on the road are all pointing to a big potential problems to come in the playoffs. There is still a lot of work to be done and the team seems to be willing to try and “flip another switch” for more consistent efforts right down to Game 83. That’s enough to drive fans and coaches crazy.