Desperate for Momentum – Have Pittsburgh Penguins Found It?
Fans have reason to be optimistic despite a season that's included the firing of a head coach and his successor losing his first four games.
Photos by greg shamus/pittsburgh penguins
The Penguins hadn’t quite established momentum heading into the game before the All-Star break, but there was evidence to suggest they were starting to get it, individually and collectively.
In a season that has already included the firing of a head coach, it could be a whole lot worse.
The record under the new guy, Mike Sullivan, was 8-7-4 heading into the Pens’ pre-All-Star finale against New Jersey. That included an 8-3-4 performance since losing the first four games of the Sullivan Era and a 5-2-3 mark since Jan. 1.
All of that qualifies as significant steps taken in the right direction, if not a cause for celebration.
Most encouraging for the Penguins is the players they consider among the best in the game are starting to perform as such. The first 10 games after the turn of the calendar included Evgeni Malkin leading the NHL with seven power-play points, Sidney Crosby tied for second with seven goals and Kris Letang leading the league’s defensemen with 13 points.
“Geno obviously was a difference-maker, and that’s what top guys are,” Sullivan noted in the aftermath of a 5-4 win over Vancouver on Jan. 23. “Sid’s been doing the same thing for us in a lot of ways over the last stretch of games here.”
Sullivan was referencing the way Malkin had gone about his business against the Canucks as much if not more than the three goals Malkin’s effort had generated.
“He was skating,” Sullivan continued. “He was on the puck. He was dominant and he has the ability to do that. I think his game has been one of the more consistent that we’ve had since I’ve been here. He’s had a pretty consistent approach game in and game out as far as helping this team win.”
Sullivan’s theory is the proper approach to playing during a game will achieve the desired results at the conclusion of a game.
That has as much to do with properly managing the puck as it does what the Penguins are able to do with it once they get it “between the dots” of the face-off circles in the attack zone, an area of the ice where Sullivan wants pucks and players as often as possible.
“On video we watched that, what we did well,” defenseman Trevor Daley explained of the team’s review of what had taken place against Vancouver, the second consecutive game during which the Pens had rallied from a 2-0 deficit to win. “Most of it was just getting the puck in deep (in the offensive zone), not losing the puck in crucial areas. We want to get the puck in behind their ‘D,’ get down low.”
Getting the puck deep into the opponent’s end and playing in the offensive zone beats turning it over in the neutral zone and jump-starting a fast-break the other way for the other guys every time.
The former is winning hockey, and the type that helps allow the stars to eventually shine.
The latter gets coaches fired.
That’s the drum Sullivan has been banging since his arrival.
Daley sounds suspiciously like a guy who has fallen into step with the beat. And Crosby suspects Daley is not alone in appreciating the parameters of how the game needs to be played, details that, if consistently applied, can allow the Penguins to thrive.
“Yeah, it’s getting there,” Crosby said. “We gotta improve on our starts a bit. But I think when we do get to our game we have a good idea what that looks like.
“We’ve been fairly consistent giving ourselves a chance to win games, that’s the biggest thing.”
That’ll continue to be the biggest thing for the Penguins after the break.
Their long-awaited apparent grasp of that absolute constitutes the biggest development of the season’s unofficial first half, and the biggest reason why genuine momentum may yet be attained.