PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s messages can be relentless. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach peppers his team with a handful of mantras that seemingly run on a loop during every practice, every period, sometimes every shift.
They run from ”play the right way” to ”get to our game” to ”keep it simple.” All of them code words of sorts to a star-laden roster that in recent years got so caught up in its own offensive talent it occasionally forgot to do the little things like, say, play responsibly on both ends of the ice.
No more. The sometimes-careless group that was outclassed, outsmarted and outworked while getting swept by the New York Islanders in the first round of the playoffs last spring has been replaced by a team that’s returned to the NHL’s elite through a mix of grit, resiliency and maturity.
Tuesday night’s 7-3 romp over Minnesota gave the Penguins their fourth consecutive victory and drew them within four points of Washington for the top spot in the Metropolitan Division as the All-Star break looms. It’s heady territory for a group that spent the last four months watching one high-profile player after another limp down the tunnel and onto injured reserve, the most jarring being captain Sidney Crosby‘s slow skate toward the bench in the third period of a shootout victory over Chicago on Nov. 9.
Five days later Crosby underwent surgery to repair a hernia. The Penguins were in the middle of the pack in the Eastern Conference at the time, their season at an early tipping point. Crosby had led the charge in making sure Pittsburgh played the 200-foot game Sullivan craves. Without him, the Penguins easily could have lost their way.
Instead, they reclaimed the identity that symbolized the teams that won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017. Their offensive wiggle room basically gone, the Penguins tightened things up in front of goaltenders Tristan Jarry and Matt Murray. They made small plays in their own end that led to big opportunities at the other.
They knew that to stay afloat in the NHL’s best division, they didn’t really have a choice.
”It was kind of a catalyst for why we had to play the game the way we did, more defensively, less risky and ultimately why we’ve been giving up fewer chances as a team,” forward Zach Aston-Reese said.
What followed was an 18-6-4 stretch that propelled Pittsburgh to fourth in the overall standings during Crosby’s 28-game absence, the second-best record in the league over that span and absurd total for a group that has missed nearly 200 man games due to injury.
”When you miss a player of Sid’s caliber, obviously the game changes a lot,” forward Jared McCann said. ”You’ve got to simplify things. You’ve got to take it one period at a time, one shift at a time and we did that. We showed we could do it and now that we have him back, we’re a deadly team.”
It sure looked like it against the Wild.
Crosby needed less than eight minutes to pick up his first point since before Halloween when he assisted on the first of Evgeni Malkin‘s two goals, an opportunity that arose thanks in part to Crosby’s mere presence.
With the Penguins on the power play, Crosby skated into the zone and fed Malkin before darting to the far post, leaving Wild forward Jason Zucker with an unenviable choice. Zucker could either stick with Crosby or try to slow down Malkin streaking down the middle. Zucker opted to shadow Crosby, giving Malkin all the room he needed to tap in Bryan Rust‘s centering pass.
”Every player is important here in locker room but Sid is captain,” Malkin said. ”We know how important again, like he is our leader. He’s great player, great teammate. … Power play is better. We’re lucky he’s back.”
And determined not to backslide into the old habits that have crept in at times since their last championship parade. Asked if Crosby’s return means the Penguins can start taking unnecessary chances knowing he is there to bail them out if necessary, McCann laughed.
”We can’t do that,” McCann said. ”We know we can’t go back to the way we started. We were a different team at the start of the year and now we’ve found our way and we know what we’ve got to do.”
Namely clear traffic in front of Jarry, an All-Star for the first time after supplanting (at least for now) Murray as the team’s top goaltender. The Wild generated few quality chances while the Penguins built a four-goal lead on Tuesday and after Minnesota drew within two early in the third, Pittsburgh responded almost immediately.
The final margin pushed the Penguins to the top spot in the NHL in goal differential, a testament to the focus they’ve brought on a regular basis. A lineup infused by new speedy, slick-skating arrivals like forward Brandon Tanev and John Marino has helped. Yet Pittsburgh’s surprising rise during Crosby’s extended layoff is due mostly to a shift in mindset and execution.
It’s a mindset Crosby stressed he has no plans to upset as he gears up for the grind ahead. Even after finishing with four points on a goal and three assists, he kept his eye on the bigger picture, channeling his inner Sullivan in the process.
”It’s going to get more difficult with every game, especially in the second half, things tend to tighten up,” Crosby said. ”We’re going to have to continue to make strides. But our work ethic and attention to detail has been pretty good throughout.”
The Penguins became diligent during Crosby’s long break. Having his familiar No. 87 back makes them dangerous.
”If we keep doing the things we’ve been doing, plus him,” Rust said, ”I think that just makes everything that much more exciting.”