In the immediate aftermath of Friday’s loss to Montreal, coach Mike Sullivan said what he could after an afternoon where he didn’t look to have any answers or ability to change what was happening.
“I thought the first two games, we played extremely well,” Sullivan said. “I thought the first game might’ve been our best. We didn’t get the power play going, but every other aspect of our game. We needed to have our best game [Friday]; we didn’t get it.”
That’s putting it mildly. Or whatever is less than that.
The Penguins only generated 22 shots on goal, total, in the game. After a lackluster or sleepy start to the game, the thought was, “hey, maybe coach will fire them up in the lockeroom during intermission and have them playing better in the second of a 0-0 game facing elimination!”
That thought didn’t work, the Pens only managed a measly five shots on goal in the second period. They didn’t score in the whole game, and probably still could be playing two days later and still not have scored a goal. It was just blah of a day, on a day where they needed the opposite.
A few days after elimination, all analysts have picked the nits with Sullivan’s decisions. He kept playing Jack Johnson, despite the team getting crushed with him on the ice all two seasons he’s been around. He kept playing Justin Schultz as his partner, even though Schultz’s performance has been just as dreadful. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin each had less than 20 minutes of ice-time in an elimination game where the game was tied 0-0 for the first 55 minutes of it. Sullivan kept trotting out his lower lines, who had absolutely no offensive prowess, but still faithfully rolled them on.
Previously, Barry Trotz has been the only coach to beat a Sullivan-led Pens’ team. Now, it looks like anyone could do it. Sullivan is now just 1-9 in his last ten playoff games. It’s been dreadful results, but the worse indicator is the team isn’t responding. No one has answers.
“When the puck dropped,” star defenseman Kris Letang said after Game 4, “I think we faced a well-balanced team with a great goaltender that played better than us.”
That’s incredibly damning, even if Letang doesn’t realize it. Montreal is not a good team. Hell, a lineup regular (Dale Weise) has already signed in Europe for next season. That’s not a career step up the ladder. Montreal traded away multiple pieces at the trade deadline for future assets. Letang is correct that the Canadiens played better than the Penguins, but is a big, big problem for the team that fancies themselves as “Cup or bust” when the result is meekly bowing out to the 24th best team in the league.
The question now is what happens to Sullivan. The NHL head coach is incredibly replaceable. The message and ability to motivate good efforts from a professional team is often just as important as the perceived technical acumen of a coach. Sullivan himself is proof of this, in the vein he was almost a total unknown to the players when promoted from the AHL job to the NHL job in December 2015. Sullivan had no real NHL success to speak of as a coach.
But that didn’t matter one bit, a strong message from a sharp communicator led to two Stanley Cup trophies in the first 18 months on the job. That’s awesome.
It also shouldn’t be a lifetime pass. Even though it’s a surprising and disappointing loss to a No. 12 seed, the biggest problem isn’t just that the Pens lost (though that certainly is an issues), it’s HOW they lost. Lifeless, listless, seemingly uninterested and unable to sustain any sort of pressure, effort or even signs of life.
No one comes out of this looking good. Evgeni Malkin only generated one point in four games. Sidney Crosby had one power play second assist in the last two games, and looked disengaged and frustrated bailing on a power play early in Game 4. Letang had no points in a series where Montreal’s top defensemen lit up the Pens. Star players tend to either be protected groups who can face no heat without offending people, or get overly-blamed for every aspect of a team’s elimination. In this case, certainly a major reason Pittsburgh lost was that their best players didn’t play as well as they needed to.
That said, the coaching pre-game lineup decisions didn’t do the stars any favors. The in-game management was just as poor. Those decisions aside, the unavoidable and indisputable failing of Sullivan was the inability to motivate the Pens. As professionals, they share in looking bad for playing so poorly. However the shelf life of NHL coaches is and should be short. There’s a reason most the Jack Adams coach of the year winners find themselves fired with a few years of winning said award. The sport is setup to move on quickly from coaches, and see if a change in voice, perspective and tone can change a team’s fortunes.
With the way the Penguins played on Friday, it’s impossible to think anything other than they require such a change at this time in order to get different results than the past three playoff series losses, each one more embarrassing than the last.