The Key to Penguins’ Success is To Resist “Coloring Outside the Lines”
There’s a blueprint for success under Mike Sullivan. It’s a demanding one and it can’t be compromised.
They spent the first half of the season competing against the rest of the NHL.
The Penguins will spend the second half playing against themselves, specifically that strand of DNA that compels them individually and collectively to wander from structure in search of the spectacular.
They’re not against the latter. But when it comes at the expense of the former, the Penguins begin playing a game head coach Mike Sullivan has no interest in them playing, mostly because it decreases the likelihood they’ll be able to keep playing games deep into the postseason.
It’s the finest of lines to straddle.
It’s a balancing act that would make the Great Wallendas envious.
But to Sullivan, it beats the alternative.
Always has and always will.
That explains why he emerged sounding dissatisfied if not annoyed after Game No. 41 of an 82-game regular-season schedule, Sunday afternoon’s come-from-behind, 3-2 shootout victory over Winnipeg.
The win was the Penguins’ fifth in succession and 16th in 18 tries, and it ran their overall record to 26-10-5 at the season’s halfway point.
But it had included too many quality scoring chances against hemorrhaged, too much risk-taking, bad decision-making and puck management, and not enough attention to detail.
Sullivan called it a “high-event game,” which is precisely the type of game he hates.
“I don’t think it was the game we want to play most nights,” Sullivan added.
It hasn’t been since Sullivan took over behind the bench on Dec. 12, 2015.
The Gospel According to Sully has been repeated often enough since then that it should have long since been committed to memory by anyone who has been associated with the Penguins longer than Brock McGinn.
The gist of it is this:
The game should be “managed” along the way to being won.
And the best way to manage it is to not take unnecessary chances, to play a sound, structured game and to wait for the other team to mismanage it, then pounce on the mistakes.
It was that way through back-to-back Stanley Cups.
It’s been that way through the last three seasons, each of which has ended with the Penguins failing to win a playoff series.
You don’t score your way to a championship.
Championships are won by “playing the right way” (for emphasis “Play The Right Way” was engraved on the inside of the Stanley Cup rings the Pens received at the conclusion of Sullivan’s first campaign).
There has been no New Testament.
You’ve probably heard Sullivan maintain often he doesn’t want to take the sticks out of great players’ hands.
But nor does he want them taking chances trying to make high-risk, low-percentage plays.
For the vast majority of this season, the Penguins have acquiesced.
Of late, against Winnipeg on Sunday in particular, they’ve strayed too often and too far for comfort
“For most of the year we’ve been pretty good about it,” Sullivan continued on Sunday. “Most recently, I don’t think our risk-reward factor has been as diligent.
“That’s our challenge moving forward.”
That challenge was confronted and conquered on Tuesday night.
The first game of the second half of the season was a 6-3 decision of Arizona during which the Penguins out-shot the Coyotes, 36-16, controlled the tempo and territory and in general played the game under the parameters their head coach demands.
They still had to rally from a third-period deficit (remember that ever-present fine line), but it was much better ascetically.
It was a distinct departure from the Winnipeg game, and from recent efforts on Jan. 17 at Vegas, on Jan. 20 against Ottawa and on Jan. 21 at Columbus.
Remarkably, the Penguins won all of those games.
They didn’t have to pay a price for coloring outside the lines.
But Sullivan knows and his players seemingly understand such results won’t be sustainable in the playoffs.
“Everybody involved from the coaching staff on down knows it’s not our best, and that it’s not going to cut it down the line,” winger Bryan Rust assessed of those recent efforts after the much-more-preferable performance against Arizona. “We gotta look at games realistically and say, ‘Hey, this isn’t how you do it.’ But good marks on us for winning.
“That’s been the message here over the past few games that we’ve won that maybe we didn’t have our best. That’s going to continue to be the message if we don’t play good for 60 minutes or play the way that we want to play.”
The success of the season’s second half will depend on how well that message continues to be received.