After their 17th win in the last 19 games and emerging as one of the NHL’s very top teams since the start of December, the Pittsburgh Penguins have that magical feeling in the air.
Coach Mike Sullivan was quick to credit his big three, and for good enough reason. Evgeni Malkin has returned from knee surgery to score nine points (3G+6A) in his first eight games. After a slow start, Sidney Crosby has 32 points (10G+22A) in his last 23 games. Kris Letang has 37 points (5G+32A) in 38 games on the season.
“That’s where it starts, for me,” Sullivan said. “These guys are accomplished players and they’ve built such an impressive legacy to this point, but they’re hungry for more. They just have such an appetite to win, and I think that’s contagious in our locker room. There’s an expectation when you put a Pittsburgh Penguins jersey on that everybody’s in it to win, and I think it starts with those guys.”
With due respect to Sullivan’s opinion, the success is probably actually starting with the messaging, strategy and standard coming from behind the bench.
“What he gets out of players and how he communicates is impressive,” forward Brian Boyle said before yesterday’s game. “It’s simple enough that we can all understand, but there’s a certain standard he demands that trickles down with the leaders on this team. It makes it easy to fall in line.”
Sullivan has never even been a finalist for the Jack Adams coach of the year award, which is pretty wild considering how well he’s done for the Penguins, but that may be about to change. A tweet by the NHL shows that Sullivan is in the minds of many and does have momentum this season:
Gerard Gallant has the Rangers over-performing where many thought they would be, but he also has a fantastic goaltender in the classic “coach looking good by the goalie bailing him out” perspective, given NYR’s terrible 5-on-5 process.
Sullivan has, as always, the star factor working against him, as if coaching isn’t required to steer a team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin into the playoffs (which, given the performance of some previous coaches, that’s not necessarily true).
With a ton of Penguin/Rangers and Carolina/Pittsburgh games still to come on the schedule, whichever coach ends up guiding their team to first place in the super-competitive Metropolitan Division may well be the front-runner for the Jack Adams this season.
It would be a fitting and deserving recognition for Sullivan, whose focus remains more narrow than worrying about front-runner of coach of the year.
But for a Penguins team that has won so much and is building momentum, the feeling of still being hungry and building for the second half of the season is another testament to the coaching inputs being received. Sullivan has never had a team start better than this one, and it’s difficult to not be excited to see where it can go in the second half of the season as the team stays hungry for more.