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Time For Penguins to Change Their Game or Their Makeup

Head Coach Mike Sullivan wants “urgency” and “enthusiasm” from his players and he wants it on an every-game basis in advance of the playoffs. The players have been a little slow to get with the program.

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Their much-anticipated return to the ice this week after an eight-day hiatus has been equal parts agonizing and spectacular.

What takes place the rest of the way ought to be fascinating.

The Penguins’ 6-3 loss to the lowly Devils on Monday night and subsequent 4-2 decision over the high-flying Lightning on Wednesday night continued what for the Pens has been a season-long trend. The loss to New Jersey dropped the Pens’ record against teams in last place in a division to 1-7-1. The win over Tampa Bay upped the Pens’ record against first-place teams to 6-2-1.

That disparity betrays a disconnect among Penguins when the task at hand is perceived as less than captivating.

It could be worse.

The Penguins could be great against bottom feeders and in over their heads against the NHL’s best.

But neither characteristic is a desired component of the identity head coach Mike Sullivan wants for his team.

Sullivan wants everyone buttoned up and dialed in, as opposed to operating under the flawed assumption that a switch can be flicked entering the postseason.

The players have been a little slow to get with the program.

But the patience for and tolerance of such a lack of consistent engagement has seemingly reached its expiration date. 

That explains, in part, the disgust Sullivan had no issue whatsoever expressing while meeting the media after the Pens had given away goals against the Devils as if they were Kris Letang bobbleheads.

Sullivan’s immediate response was to threaten changes on the No. 1 power-play unit, which had been scorched for another short-handed goal, the NHL-worst 11th the Pens had surrendered this season.

He eventually decided against what would have been a seismic alteration to the equation, but the players apparently still got the message, at least temporarily.

Why else would Evgeni Malkin, the Pens’ biggest power-play offender in terms of diligence and detail, have been talking about, of all things, backchecking and keeping the shifts short and responsible in between the games against New Jersey and Tampa?

That’s the kind of stuff that at least gets serious consideration when a team that at one point lost nine of 10 this season and at another point won eight in a row and 12 of 14 begins trending toward indifference again.

The Feb. 25 trade deadline also looms as an option in the event General Manager Jim Rutherford feels compelled to necessitate a shakeup. The press box seating chart on Wednesday night listed representatives from 19 NHL teams in attendance, including two each from the Kings, Blackhawks, Flames, Red Wings and Flyers.

Trades, like the power play, will at least be a topic of conversation.

Still another potential development is the “defensive conscience” Sullivan keeps referencing will kick in eventually, the Pens will find their stride as a team that’s tough to play against at both ends and they’ll end up marching into the playoffs.

That’s ultimately what has happened repeatedly under Sullivan.

He’s ready for it to happen again, but sooner rather than later.

Now wouldn’t be too soon.

“Doesn’t matter who the opponent is,” Sullivan insisted. “For me, we should find the motivation for urgency and enthusiasm just with the opportunity that’s in front of us.

“We have to seize every opportunity that comes our way.”

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