PITTSBURGH — There is no magic button, even if the correlation between Mike Sullivan’s deft attempts to a get player’s attention and that player almost immediately elevating his game is unmistakable.
The Pittsburgh Penguins coach insists he’s just doing his job, one that has brought the underachieving team to within three periods of a Stanley Cup that seems as inevitable now as it seemed unlikely when he took over in mid-December.
Pittsburgh headed home Tuesday with a firm 3-1 lead over the San Jose Sharks in the tightly contested but ultimately one-sided best-of-seven after Evgeni Malkin picked up a goal and an assist in a 3-1 victory on Monday night. Malkin’s performance came barely 36 hours after Sullivan praised the star center for his hard work while adding the team needed even more from him if the Penguins wanted to close out the franchise’s fourth title.
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And just like that, it happened.
There was Malkin getting the secondary assist on Ian Cole‘s opening goal. There was Malkin redirecting Phil Kessel‘s pass from the circle into the net for a 2-0 advantage. There was Malkin skating with purpose, breaking up passes on one end of the ice and looking for his shot at the other. His first goal of the Cup final came when he darted for the far post on the power play and found himself all alone when Kessel threaded it to him.
“It’s not like great goal, but it’s just go to net, you know, and stay close to net and try play around net,” Malkin said. “When I have puck, I’m try shoot. It’s simple game tonight for me.”
A vintage one too. Ditto Sullivan, whose knack for drawing the best out of his players during Pittsburgh’s thrillingly arduous playoff run is becoming so frequent it’s tempting to ask him for lottery numbers.
He noticed rookie Conor Sheary looking fatigued during the Eastern Conference finals against Tampa Bay and sat him for Game 5. Sheary, rested and still confident after a brief talk with Sullivan, returned to his pest-like self and has scored twice during the Cup final, including the overtime winner in Game 2.
Sullivan pulled struggling defenseman Olli Maatta in the second round against Washington yet stressed to the 21-year-old Maatta he would eventually get another chance, one that arrived when Trevor Daley went down with an ankle injury. All Maatta has done since his return is become the best Pittsburgh defenseman not named Kris Letang.
A sluggish night by rookie goaltender Matt Murray in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals led to Sullivan’s most risky decision. He awarded the Game 5 start to veteran Marc-Andre Fleury, a move he made after taking 10 minutes to explain the reasoning behind it to Murray. It made all the difference. When Fleury slipped late in an overtime loss, Sullivan went right back to Murray. The 22-year-old is 5-1 since returning to the lineup.
“Every player goes through their ups and downs, times when they’re at the top of their game, and times where it can be a bit of a challenge,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s just human nature. Our players are no different. It never changes our opinions of these guys or how we feel about them. It’s our responsibility as their coaching staff to try to help them through the process.”
A responsibility that Sullivan takes seriously. The hyper-competitive forward who spent 11 seasons grinding out a career developed an appreciation for coaches who didn’t mince words. He places a premium on transparency. There is very little guessing about what’s on his mind, mostly because he doesn’t hesitate to say what needs to be said and if you don’t like the tone, well, that’s on you though Sullivan makes it a point to never make it personal.
“When he needs to he can call you out and tell you that he wants more from you,” Murray said.
And no one is immune, regardless of status. When Malkin failed to register anything on the scoresheet through the first three games of the Cup final, Sullivan decided it was time to speak up.
“He’s been a big part of this playoff success,” Sullivan said. “But certainly I know that there’s another level that he has to help us win.”
The comments came only after Sullivan spoke to Malkin, the new father – his daughter Nikita was born last Tuesday – well aware of his own inability to transfer his power and creativity into points. Given an opportunity to lift Pittsburgh to the cusp of a title, Malkin looked like the force of nature who bulled his way to the Conn Smythe Trophy the last time the Penguins won it all in 2009.
“When he turns it on, obviously what he can do for us is huge for our team,” Cole said.
Then again, in Sullivan’s mind that makes Malkin no different than any of the other 20 guys in black-and-gold. He tries to work phrases like “play the right way” and “our group” in to nearly every answer. His team’s rise over the last six months is a collective effort, not a star-driven one.
“I’ve told these guys from day one that we believe in this group,” Sullivan said. “We believe in our players, and we know when the stakes are high, they’re going to be at their best.”
No magic button required.