SAN JOSE — You don’t win the Stanley Cup without going through a little adversity along the way. There’s always a low point in the season, when things just aren’t clicking and everyone’s wondering what’s wrong. It’s never a smooth ride to the top.
Teams say this all the time when they capture hockey’s ultimate prize.
But the Pittsburgh Penguins, boy, did they take the whole adversity thing to the extreme in 2015-16. The Pens didn’t just have a tough stretch early on. They didn’t just have a few kinks to work out. The Pens, let’s face it, were a downright mess.
Recall back in November following a 4-0 loss to New Jersey when Evgeni Malkin told reporters, “We’re not playing right. We’re not working hard. It’s tough right now. We’re mad at each other.”
Soon after that came a report, quickly denied, that captain Sidney Crosby had had a falling out with owner Mario Lemieux.
And soon after that head coach Mike Johnston was fired, replaced by Mike Sullivan.
The Pens proceeded to lose four in a row under Sullivan. They couldn’t score. All that talent and they couldn’t put the puck in the net.
Then, slowly but surely, things started to turn. A few fresh tactics. A handful of new players. One good thing after another, it all kept coming together, and the Penguins started to roll.
Pittsburgh’s season culminated Sunday at SAP Center with nothing less than a Cup celebration.
“I don’t think you could expect it,” said defenseman Ian Cole. “When we were at that point in December when we had hit maybe our low point of the season, there was a lot of frustration built up, there was a lot of guys were extremely frustrated with how they were playing, how the team was playing.”
Sidney Crosby was the most notable of the slow starters. The captain had just 19 points in 28 games before the coaching change. He ended up hoisting the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP.
“Obviously after a coaching change, I think everyone takes that personal, puts the responsibility on their shoulders to be better,” said Crosby. “I think individually and as a group we had high expectations, we knew we needed to be better. I thought we just slowly got better and better.”
The owner credited Sullivan for the revival.
“When he came in, he changed the way we played the game,” said Lemieux. “We played a fast game, we played on our toes. It really changed the way we approached the game as well.”
The general manager agreed.
“Sully made an immediate connection with the players,” said Jim Rutherford. “He just has a special way about him, about the way he communicates. The players bought into it, they liked the style he played and then it just gained momentum from there.”
While Cole found it hard to pinpoint one major factor in the turnaround — “I don’t think you can say one thing specifically” — it was impossible not to think of Sullivan when he spoke.
“I think the tactics we had were fantastic, I think the ability to stick to the game plan, to not get away from it, to continue to play the full 60 minutes, I think was unparalleled for our team,” said Cole. “The ability to answer if things don’t go your way was unbelievable, the ability to block out all the noise, all the stuff that people were saying about our team and just play. It was something that was very special, very unique to this team.”
For Sullivan, it was simply a matter of finding the right style, then getting everyone to buy in.
“The one thing we tried to do was create an identity and establish an identity,” he said. “I thought as the head coach, it was my responsibility to direct that. So we look at our personnel. When we looked at the type of players we have, our core guys, we think we’ve got players that want to play fast.”
And play fast they did. In the end, it was the Penguins’ speed that nobody could stop. Not just skating fast, though certainly they had a few speedsters. But more moving-the-puck fast, from one end of the ice to the other. And when the other team had it, swarm. Get that puck back. Then go attack again.
In a word, they were relentless.
“Their speed, the pressure they put on with their speed,” said Sharks coach Pete DeBoer. “It’s not just their speed, they have good sticks, too. They force you into quicker decisions. They really challenge your execution. We hadn’t seen pressure and sticks like that through the first three rounds. I think our execution was an issue because of that.”
It’s been a long seven years since the Penguins last won the Cup. The time between titles saw a lot of disappointment, a lot of frustration. And because of that, a lot of change.
“With the core we have, you think everyone’s going to stay together, the team’s not going to change,” said Crosby. “But it does. That’s kind of the reality of playing hockey. There’s turnover, things change, guys move on, different coaches. There’s so much change. So many different things need to happen. You need to have some luck along the way.”
And when it all comes together?
“I think you just appreciate it,” he said. “You appreciate how hard it is to win it.”