The Pittsburgh Penguins won their division last season, while leading the league in important man-games lost to injury. Head coach Mike Sullivan wasn’t even a finalist for the Jack Adams coach of the year award.
With more performances like in the NHL’s opening night last night, a 6-2 win over the defending Stanley Cup champion Lightning, it will become tougher to ignore the job Sullivan has done. Sullivan hasn’t care about the Jack Adams — and at the rate those coaches tend to get fired soon after they win it, maybe he shouldn’t — his focus is on the task at hand right now to guide the Penguins through the start of this season without their three best offensive forwards in Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jake Guentzel.
“I thought we played the game that we’re trying to play,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said after last night’s win. “We were doing everything in fives in all three zones. That’s when our team is at its best. Our best defense takes place 150, 160 feet away from our net with our puck pursuit game. I thought our guys did a real good job tonight.”
Another quote, from forward Dominik Simon, really put a bow on the performance that was clearly evident from the previous few hours of hockey and was a fitting tribute to the job of Sullivan.
“I think we all felt very prepared,” Simon said. “We all knew what to do on the ice. Then just had to execute and do it the right way. I think we did that really well.”
The Pens’ preparation was on point, and the players deserve a ton of credit too for executing the plan flawlessly. Pittsburgh was engaged and working hard on the forecheck, the speed and tenacity giving Tampa big problems all night long. The Lightning looked like they were still in preseason mode, if not thinking about their summer with the Stanley Cup that was in the building during the pre-game ceremony. The Pens introduced them immediately to the fact that the new season had begun, and then constantly reminded the Lightning of it.
Folks: This Penguins forecheck has completely winded the Tampa Bay Lightning. They are just whacking pucks up the glass here and peeking over their shoulder with every attempted clear. Lotta game left here, but that's where we are right now.— Jesse Marshall (@jmarshfof) October 13, 2021
On those occasions where Tampa could get the puck to the Pens’ end, the Pittsburgh defense was tremendous. They were layered and balanced, beautifully positioned to prevent almost even the hint of odd-man rushes. There were players in the shooting lane, defenders clogging the slot. The Pens were winning puck battles, chipping pucks out and getting chances themselves in transition as a result.
And when Tampa could get looks at the net, it was the embattled goalie there to pick up his end of the deal and put a positive and confidence building stamp on the night.
“I think it’s a big win for [Jarry],” Sullivan said. “I thought he played really well. He made a handful of real good saves. No matter how hard you try to defend against Tampa, they have some gamebreakers and that quick-strike offense. They’re going to get chances. We did our best to limit them, but when they did get chances, Tristan was there to make some big saves for us.”
A night like Tuesday was the perfect reminder that when a team has a top-5 (or top-3) coach in the NHL, it’s best to hold onto that. Even with some playoff disappointments and natural frustrations, the value of a coach like Mike Sullivan was on full display in Tampa. Almost everyone between the Cup champs, neutral observers, broadcasters, hell even a large portion of the Pittsburgh fan base figured the Pens would be overwhelmed by their talent deficiency and lose the game. There probably would have been no shame in that given that five important players worth almost $31 million (or about 37.8% of the salary cap) were unable to play.
But that wasn’t what happened. Sullivan did what he always does, went to work to craft a relentless full-team effort and produced the player buy in to execute a winning style of hockey down to the smallest structural and schematic details. It was a tactical stroke of brilliance from an elite hockey mind.
Tuesday night probably won’t soon forgotten, and be the measuring stick performance in effort and results for the Pens over the rest of the season. Clearly in an 82-game season there are highs and lows that will naturally happen, but luckily this game will also be notable because it ties a record. Sullivan’s win last night, his 252nd as bench boss of the Pens, moves him equal to Dan Bylsma for most career wins as a Pens coach.
There couldn’t have been too many sweeter or more rewarding for Sullivan than the complete effort he saw from his team last night. And it all started thanks to the coach. Mike Sullivan might not have won a Jack Adams yet, but that lack of recognition doesn’t change what he has accomplished and what he brings to the table for the Pens.