Who Can Convince the Pens to Switch from Pond Hockey to Playoff Hockey?

If Mike Sullivan and Sidney Crosby can’t get through to the other players, who can?


They limped into the all-star break having won just three of their last 17 games in regulation, and in the process looked very much like a team that had stopped responding to its coach.

The Penguins’ bigger problem might be that they’ve seemingly likewise tuned out their captain.

“It starts with me,” head coach Mike Sullivan insisted after a 6-4 loss to San Jose last Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena. “I’ve gotta do a better job coaching these guys and getting it out of them and making sure that the message is being heard.”

Given the rough stretch the Penguins had been enduring, the importance of the two points at stake in the Eastern Conference playoff chase and the quality of the opposition – giving up six goals and losing at home to a Sharks team that came in at 14-25-11 and had been beaten the previous evening – qualifies as perhaps the low point of a season that is best characterized at the break by frustration.

Worse yet is the collective, extended response to what Sidney Crosby had said before the Sharks game, six days before the Pens entertained San Jose.

Crosby and the Penguins were minutes removed from a 2-1 loss in overtime on Jan. 22 at New Jersey at that juncture. That had been a game in which the Penguins, for the vast majority of play, had committed themselves to doing the things they need to do to be successful. They had earned just one point rather than two for all their dirty work and attention to detail, but they emerged encouraged. The group effort had suggested better days ahead if they could continue playing in such a fashion, if they could continue “playing the right way,” as Sullivan is fond of saying.

Crosby didn’t dismiss what the Penguins had done against a good team in a tough environment, but at the same time made it clear the ability to replicate such efforts as necessary is what would resonate.

“We did some good things, but we have to find that type of game consistently,” Crosby emphasized.

For Crosby, that constitutes a mouthful.

But his urgings toward that end, like Sullivan’s, fell on deaf ears.

The Pens returned home to host Florida on Jan. 24 and played pond hockey rather than playoff hockey. They escaped a defensively indifferent, disconnected performance that was tied 3-3 after 20 minutes and won, 7-6, in overtime, but it was still a step back, maybe several.

Then they surrendered an astounding 22 shots on goal in the first period of what became a 3-2 shootout loss on Jan. 26 at Washington.

Then they let the Sharks score half a dozen times last Saturday, something San Jose had managed to do once previously in its first 50 games.

If ever a team needed a break, it’s this one.

“We have to do a better job in my mind at being harder to play against,” Sullivan lamented. “We have to do a better job keeping it out of our net.”

Sullivan has been preaching that stuff since his arrival in December 2015.

If you’ve been following along since then, you can probably recite his puck management soliloquies by heart.

Imagine how many times the players have heard that stuff by now, along with Sullivan’s insistence that you can’t “score your way to a championship.”

Their response, or lack thereof, is understandable (regrettable but understandable).

Since the Pens are still on relatively solid ground in the playoff chase despite their current 5-7-5 malaise, they haven’t been scared straight yet.

But when Crosby publicly announces that it’s time to straighten up and fly right on a consistent basis and the team response is continuing to color outside the lines … that’s a problem.

“The expectations are higher,” Sullivan maintained.

So they say.

But at this juncture, you have to wonder.

Not about Sullivan or Crosby, but about what the rest of the Pens legitimately expect from themselves, the team and this season.

About where it is they think they’re headed, and how they intend to get there.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section