There is perhaps no more replaceable position in the professional sports world than the NHL head coach. They come and go with regularity. Change ‘em up. It’s easier to fire the coach than trade the whole team, as the saying goes.
Mike Sullivan knows this. Knows it better than anyone. He won the Stanley Cup with the Penguins after six months on the job, when the team looked down and out when he got there.
(And lost his first four games as Pens coach)
But Sullivan righted the ship. He persevered. Really, when you’re an NHL coach the only thing you can cling to is the steadiness of your mentality. The same message every day. Consistent effort. Embrace the challenge. Prepare your team for the best. Stay the course.
Staying the course has brought Sullivan success. It’s others who panic. Like when the Pens were down 3 games to 2 to Tampa in 2016 and a major Pittsburgh newspaper suggested Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle might as well sell the team with another loss (lol).
There’s always panic in the media and among the fans when elimination is on the line. Especially in a situation like this, when the Penguins really shouldn’t be eliminated by the Montreal Canadiens.
And yet, credit to the scrappy Habs, a Pittsburgh elimination is a possibility after a Game 3 comeback by Montreal saw three straight goals scored on the Pens to put them in this position.
Sullivan can’t panic, but he must be smart. Back in 2016 versus Tampa he did switch goalies, going back to rookie Matt Murray in a gutsy move. Otherwise he only made one lineup change putting Conor Sheary in for Beau Bennett. Sheary got a primary assist in 12 minutes of work. Murray stopped 28/30, the moves worked and the Pens won 5-2 and would go onto win a Game 7.
Fast forward four years and Sullivan is in another bind. He’s got many obvious choices for improvement. The Jack Johnson and Justin Schultz pair has been excused forever by the media, yet are the team’s Achilles’ heel. Johnson was on ice for three goals against in less than 11 even strength minutes last night. Schultz was arguably even worse in his play on ice for two goals against.
Sullivan’s third line — but really his fourth line — is a mess. He tried a move by benching Jared McCann after two disappointing games.
“Jared McCann was a healthy scratch,” Sullivan after Game 3. “We didn’t feel like we were getting enough of an impact from that line. We thought we would make a change. We really like Sam’s speed and his physicality. That’s why we made the decision we did.”
The move to insert Sam Laffery in the lineup didn’t pay off. Lafferty was on ice and scrambling for the team’s first goal against in just his second shift. He only got 6:07 of icetime in the rest of the game. Lafferty had been the team’s worst performing regular forward in the season based on advanced metrics. Tabbing him wasn’t a likely fix, and it didn’t work.
Now comes the tough choices. Veteran trade addition Patrick Marleau has played 854 straight regular season games, and is one of the most respected players in the league. But he’s been invisible at best and deficient at worst this series. On merit, he shouldn’t be back in the lineup.
Johnson and Schultz have been dreadful in the series. Both had poor regular seasons. Though they inexplicably retain trust, they aren’t getting the job done. Fans clamor for Juuso Riikola, but he’s been persona non grata among the coaches, and been used as a forward and scratched for a fourth right handed defenseman in the lineup. Chad Ruhwedel remains a serviceable but limited replacement option.
McCann hasn’t scored a goal in 24 games and his confidence now is likely totally shot after a healthy scratch. Lafferty was mostly skipped over Wednesday night after being dressed for the game. Evan Rodrigues has been impressive in limited looks but has been salted away as a scratch as well.
Matt Murray was great in the first two games, but allowed four goals and failed to control rebounds on a couple of them. Murray didn’t seal the very top portion of the net when a breakdown allowed Jeff Petry all day to walk into a shot for the Game 3 winning goal. Backup Tristan Jarry was terrific early in the season, but worse statistically than Murray in calendar 2020 and now would be coming in cold for the most important game if that’s the choice.
Sullivan’s team played a game they easily could have and possibly should have won in Game 1, but they lost in overtime. They blew a big lead in Game 3 and lost all sense of defensive composure and structure against an underdog with nothing to lose.
Perhaps now it’s time for Sullivan to coach like he has nothing to lose, even if he does have much to lose. An NHL coach isn’t served to panic and make wholesale changes but the Pens roster has opened themselves up for many looks in the mirror.
Sullivan stayed the course and trusted the process early in the series, but that process and the team’s resolve faded on him in the second half of Game 3, finding no ability to stem the rising Montreal tide.
The coach doesn’t have the luxury of second chances now. Players like Marleau, McCann, Johnson and Schultz have proved to be weaknesses. They’re not the only ones, but as the saying goes, you can’t change the whole team. You can change the coach.
Who knows how much patience Pens’ upper management would have getting bounced from the playoffs by an inferior lineup, but history says it’s not typically a patient group. Sullivan is in a tough position where he can’t panic, but needs to press the right buttons to extend the series into a winner take all.
If the Pens win Game 4, they may well carry momentum and confidence into the series deciding game, much like they did when all hope looked lost against Tampa four years ago when pushed to the brink. Sullivan proved steady and made the right calls then and the players executed back then. Can they all converge to do it again?