Pens and Steelers Know It's Not How You Start, But How You Finish

Neither team got off to a hot start, but as their seasons continue, there are signs of a change in trajectory.

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The Penguins and Steelers have shared more than a color scheme at the outset of their respective seasons.

At the rink and on the field, the long-term outlook has taken an encouraging turn following a relatively disappointing start.

The 4-1-2 record the Penguins fashioned through seven games was a bit misleading. It included only one loss in regulation, but also just two wins in games that weren’t extended beyond 60 minutes, games that didn’t require the NHL’s gimmicky 3-on-3 overtime format or the even-more-gimmicky shootout resolution to decide, neither of which are options in the NHL playoffs.

For starters the Pens were more identifiable with the type of wide-open, high-risk, fire-away-and-see-what-happens matchups head coach Mike Sullivan abhors (7-6 over Washington, 6-5 over Edmonton) than with winning through detail and diligence, the way they’ll eventually need to win in the postseason (3-0 over Toronto).

“It’s fun to be in those kind of 6-5 games and be on the right side of them,” captain Sidney Crosby noted. “But it’s not necessarily the way you’re going to consistently win.

“I think we understand that.”

Crosby referenced the 3-0 win in Toronto last week as a “blueprint” for what the Pens are trying to build.

For the time being, it established this group is still capable of playing such a determined and dedicated game against a dangerous opponent.

Eventually, that type of game will be the Penguins’ consistent signature. But that won’t happen until the players can fully reacquaint themselves with the numerous nuances of execution such an effort demands.

“There’s definitely a learning curve, even if you’ve played a long time,” Crosby explained. “You still need to build those habits. Part of you, having experience, thinks that they should already be there because you know it and you’ve been through it.

“At the same time, there are still things that you have to reinforce and go through. Just reminding yourself of that and really trying to be aware of that is important as an individual, and as a team, too.

“I feel like this time of year you’re always trying to work things out a bit.”

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The Steelers’ sub-.500 start at 1-2-1 included finding a way not to win at Cleveland, failing to demonstrate an ability to understand and execute defensive calls and concepts against Kansas City, and getting bullied by Baltimore.

It wasn’t an atypical beginning for the Mike Tomlin-era Steelers.

They’re 22-18-1 (.549) in Tomlin’s career in regular-season games in September and 97-44-0 (.688) in every other month.

“I don’t know what it is with this team,” guard David DeCastro acknowledged. “The season starts a little slow when it’s warm out and then football weather kind of hits and everyone starts clicking.”

The Steelers aren’t yet clicking on all cylinders, but the physicality they’ve been able to unleash in recent weeks suggests their best football is ahead of them.

Just about a month ago the sky had been falling in the wake of a disheartening, 26-14 loss at home to the Ravens.

But the sun was shining brightly Thursday as the Steelers continued preparations for Sunday’s rematch with Cleveland.

Thanks to the Ravens and Bengals both losing while the Steelers enjoyed a bye last Sunday, the Steelers did so as a first-place team.

“You don’t think too much about it,” DeCastro said of the sudden ascension in the AFC North Division standings. “You’re like, ‘OK, we gotta go back to work.’”

Much work remains for the Steelers and the Penguins, but both have already demonstrated a perspective that should pay dividends.

What matters most is not how you start, but how you finish.

That’s worth remembering at the outset of any season, no matter how easy it is to forget.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section