Right now the Penguins are in a tenuous position that could end with them finishing as high as second place in the Metropolitan Division, or as low as out of a playoff spot. The latter is probably the more unlikely of the two, and the general consensus is they will probably fall somewhere in between.
Mix in the expected return of Brian Dumoulin, Evgeni Malkin and Scott Wilson from injury, and you have even more fun scenarios to play with.
But head coach Mike Sullivan doesn’t appear worried about that right now, and nor should he be.
The Pens haven’t put together a record of 30-15-5 since Sullivan took over as head coach by wondering what could be if certain things fall into place down the road. They did it because Sullivan is only concerned about the here and now.
Sullivan has mastered the skill of making the most of what he has, despite injuries, lackluster performances on certain nights and multiple disappearing acts from certain players that you could almost set your watch to. But what makes it compelling isn’t how he has limited these circumstances; it’s how he has gotten the team to respond to them.
The captain isn’t playing to his capabilities? Remind him how good he is when he does all the little things and displays the relentless motor he’s known for and watch Sidney Crosby play leap frog with the league scoring leaders every night.
The Norris Trophy caliber defenseman is letting emotions get the better of him and take him out of his game? Have a private chat with him about controlling those emotions and witness Kris Letang help to carry the team offensively and set the tone for a season-saving turnaround.
The star right winger with a reputation for taking nights off and general laziness isn’t pulling his weight? Mention how much of an asset he is when he’s going full-steam and behold Phil Kessel recording multiple points in four of his last nine games, all while (gasp) playing defense?!
One would create a strong argument on either side in crediting the coach or the players for driving this three-month surge. But what tips the scales is Sullivan’s ability to reach the players with not only what he needs them to do collectively, but helping them realize how they can still improve individually. That alone puts him in a separate category from his predecessor, Mike Johnston, and even from the latter days of Dan Bylsma’s tenure.
Sullivan’s focus on game-to-game urgency and his slightly passive-agressive method of positive reinforcement has helped transform a team that formerly languished against division opponents into one that out-skated the New York Rangers, strangled the Philadelphia Flyers and suppressed the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Washington Capitals into complete frustration; all within the last two weeks.
With five of their seven games remaining against teams currently in the playoff race, there’s no time to ease up. They learned that the hard way when the New Jersey Devils shut them out, 3-0, on March 24, one of only two losses in the last ten games.
There’s also no time to answer all the questions looming down the road…
What happens to the second line when Malkin comes back? It doesn’t matter.
Can the power play be fixed before the playoffs? Not important.
Which is the best matchup for them in the first round of the playoffs? Objection, Your Honor. Irrelevant.
For this team and this coach, the only focus should be on the here and now.
After all, that’s what’s gotten them this far.