Sullivan wary even with red-hot Penguins surging

sullivan penguins
Ben Jackson/Getty Images

PITTSBURGH — The message is more than six years old at this point. And no less vital.

From the day he took the Pittsburgh Penguins head coaching job in December 2015, Mike Sullivan has known he’s in charge of a uniquely talented group, one that can sometimes fall in love with its own considerable ability.

The trick for Sullivan is to make sure Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company can consistently decipher the difference between dazzling and dumb. It’s why the energy with which he delivers his personal mantra — “play the right way” — has rarely waned.

It was there on Sunday in the aftermath of a 3-2 win over Winnipeg that boosted the Penguins to a remarkable 26-10-5 mark at the season’s halfway point, good enough for second in the hotly contested Metropolitan Division.

Sure, Sullivan’s team had recovered from a two-goal, third-period deficit to pull off its fifth straight win. Sure, All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry turned aside 27 shots, including a handful of odd-man rushes in the first two periods as the Jets successfully lured the Penguins into a track meet. Sure, Crosby’s deft flick of the wrist in the shootout pushed Pittsburgh’s record to 16-2-0 in its last 18 games.

Still, a message needed to be sent. Too often of late the old habits — the ones Sullivan has been trying to rid his team of since the day he took the job — have crept in. The risky pass. The lackadaisical backchecking. The temptation to provide the spectacular play instead of the simple one.

So while Sullivan is pleased with the way his team has competed during an eventful first half in which Crosby missed a month, Malkin missed three and COVID-19 made its way through a considerable portion of the dressing room, he made a point to reiterate the process is sometimes more important than the result.

Asked if the dip in attention to detail of late — even among all the wins — is the mere byproduct of a heavy workload and the malaise that can set in during the middle of a six-month grind, Sullivan politely bristled.

“We’re not looking for excuses,” he said. “We’re trying to achieve excellence every day. Our expectation is high in that room. And we all have a responsibility to live up to that standard of what it means to be a Pittsburgh Penguin.”

A standard that has helped the Penguins reach the playoffs for 15 straight seasons, the longest active streak in major North American professional sports. Barring a collapse, a 16th trip to the playoffs awaits in April, and Sullivan knows what happens this spring remains the ultimate arbiter. It’s why he’s pressing even now, with his team among the hottest in the NHL.

“No one is going to rationalize sloppy play for any particular reason, fatigue or otherwise,” he said. “It’s our challenge to find ways to manage our game through it.”

It wasn’t an issue early in the season. Minus two of the game’s most dynamic players, the Penguins hung around behind Jarry’s steadiness, All-Star forward Jake Guentzel’s sublime hockey IQ, and the unexpected emergence of forward Evan Rodrigues.

Encouraged to shoot more early in the year while filling in on the top lines, the 28-year-old Rodrigues has morphed from role player to legitimate scoring threat. His 15 goals are a career high, though he’s also gone scoreless over his last eight games, seven of them coming after Malkin’s long-awaited return to the lineup following offseason knee surgery.

The two are not directly related, but Malkin’s arrival puts the Penguins nearly at full strength. It also gives Pittsburgh the wiggle room offensively it lacked early in the season. It’s a blessing but also, in a way, a curse.

The Penguins are 6-1 since Malkin’s familiar No. 71 hopped over the boards for the first time since last year’s playoff loss to the New York Islanders, but they’ve also found themselves playing the kind of up-and-down hockey Sullivan loathes.

It wasn’t just Sunday. Pittsburgh is allowing 33.8 shots per game with Malkin in the lineup, an uptick from the 29.3 it surrendered in the 34 games with Malkin watching from afar. There are far more factors involved than Malkin’s presence and the trickle-down effect on the lineup. And yes, the Penguins are soaring at the moment.

Sullivan, however, is not focused so much on the present as he is on the future. The brand of hockey his team is playing is entertaining to be sure. It’s also dangerous, and Sullivan knows it.

“I know our team is very capable, and when we’re at our best we do a real good job with the risk-reward factor,” he said. “I think most recently it’s been a little more volatile than we’d like.”

At least the Penguins are absorbing these lessons in victory. Two goals in less than 10 seconds on Sunday against the Jets tied the game and erased 40ish minutes of shaky decision-making.

“For this team, to come back in a game doesn’t take much,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “We have the talent and skill.”

That’s never been the issue for a roster boasting a handful of future Hall of Famers. The key as the Penguins head into the second half will be finding the right balance between dazzling and diligence.

“It’s hard to score your way to championships,” said Sullivan, who led Pittsburgh to the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017. “The chance-for-chance game is not a formula for consistent success and I think our players know that.”

And if they forget, Sullivan is there with a reminder. Every single day.

Scroll Down For:

    Ovechkin, and Ovi Jr., take the ice at All-Star skills night

    ovechkin all star
    Jasen Vinlove/USA TODAY Sports
    1 Comment

    SUNRISE, Fla. — When you’ve got the second-most goals in NHL history, you’re evidently permitted to bring a guest onto the ice for the All-Star Skills competition.

    That’s why there were two No. 8 Washington jerseys out there.

    Capitals star Alex Ovechkin took the ice with his Metropolitan Division teammates – and his oldest child, 4-year-old Sergei.

    Sergei, named for Ovechkin’s late brother, was wearing an Ovi Jr. jersey. The kid has built a bit of a following in recent weeks, after scoring a goal at a Caps practice in December and playing a role in helping the Washington crowd celebrate his dad’s 800th goal.

    It was Ovi Jr.’s first chance at being part of an All-Star weekend. His father hasn’t participated at All-Star since 2018, either because of COVID-19 or injuries. The last time his dad played in an All-Star event, Sergei hadn’t been born.

    Alex Ovechkin has 812 goals. He only trails Wayne Gretzky’s 894 in NHL history.

    And later in the night, Ovi Jr. got to center a line alongside his dad and Pittsburgh great Sidney Crosby. They each got an assist on a goal that Sergei scored – beating Roberto Luongo, the Florida great who came out of retirement for All-Star weekend.

    Said Ovechkin after his son scored: “I think he’s really enjoying it.”

    WELCOME HOME, LU

    Luongo got to be part of one more All-Star competition.

    In a building where a banner bearing his No. 1 jersey hangs – he’s the only former Panthers player to have that distinction – Luongo was a celebrity goaltender during the Breakaway Challenge during the Skills Competition on Friday night.

    He stopped his lone shot in the breakaway, off the stick of Toronto’s Mitch Marner. On one hand, Marner is the Maple Leafs’ leading scorer this season. On the other hand, he was also wearing a white suit, sunglasses and a light blue T-shirt to keep with a “Miami Vice” theme.

    Luongo, who was regaled by “Luuuuu” chants from the Florida fans all night, was up to the challenge. Marner tried to beat him to the glove side, but Luongo got enough of it to make the save – then flopped forward to cover up the rebound, the smile clearly seen through his mask.

    “You got too close,” Luongo told Marner.

    Later, Luongo told ESPN during the telecast of the event that “this is my house. This is my home right here. The crease is my home.”

    Luongo’s pads paid tribute to his career – the design depicted his time both as a member of the Panthers and the Vancouver Canucks. They were a gift from CCM for his making the Hockey Hall of Fame.

    “I’d never put the pads on since I retired,” Luongo said. “First time I put them on was this week. Felt pretty good.”

    He also took part, and scored a goal, in a Florida alumni game on Wednesday night. But if there’s more alumni games, Luongo suggested he might jump back into the net.

    “It back some good memories tonight to be in the blue paint, hearing the chants,” Luongo said. “Maybe one day we’ll hear them again.”

    REMEMBERING JIMMY

    Sergei Ovechkin – who knocked a shot into an open net during a stoppage of the skills events – wasn’t the only child who got a great view of the night.

    Philadelphia forward Kevin Hayes has his 3-year-old nephew Beau with him for All-Star weekend. Beau’s father was Jimmy Hayes, Kevin Hayes’ brother.

    Jimmy Hayes was 31 when he died in 2021 with fentanyl and cocaine in his system. He played for four NHL teams, including Florida.

    Kevin Hayes is part of an All-Star weekend for the first time.

    ANTHEM POISE

    “The Star-Spangled Banner” was performed by the South Florida Gay Men’s Chorus, and group crushed it – never minding that the crowd, representing several different fan bases, was going to shout some term specific to their team at various points in the lyrics.

    Florida fans shout along with “red” and “Knight,” one a nod to one of the team’s primary colors, the other for goaltender Spencer Knight. There also were some shouts from other fan bases; some St. Louis fans, for example, could be heard singing “home of the Blues” instead of “home of the brave” to close the song.

    And “O Canada” performer Hannah Walpole had some shouting as she sang as well, particularly when she reached the “true North” portion of those lyrics – something typically heard at Winnipeg games.

    SLAP SHOTS

    Cale Makar, the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner from the Stanley Cup champion Colorado Avalanche, was the first participant in the Fastest Skater event – the opening competition of the night. He fell coming around the second turn. … Tampa Bay’s Pat Maroon, one of the broadcasters on the event, reported that he was “freezing” by working at ice level. “I’m used to the gear,” said Maroon, who was in a blazer and open shirt Friday night. … A big hit for those used to the regular colors of FLA Live Arena – and basically all other hockey arenas – was the ocean-water-shade of blue used for the blue lines and the creases. The faceoff dots at the circles on either end of the ice aren’t the standard solid red this weekend, but depict an image of the sun instead.

    Capitals sign Dylan Strome to five-year, $25 million extension

    Chase Agnello-Dean/Getty Images
    0 Comments

    FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. – The Washington Capitals signed forward Dylan Strome to a five-year extension worth $25 million.

    The team announced the contract during NHL All-Star Weekend, which is taking place in South Florida – the place Strome was drafted third in 2015.

    Strome will count $5 million against the salary cap through the 2027-28 season. He was set to be a restricted free agent this summer.

    “Dylan is an intelligent and skilled center and has been a great addition to our organization,” general manager Brian MacLellan said. “We are pleased to sign him to a long-term contract. We feel his skill set is a great fit for our team as he enters the prime years of his career at an important position.”

    Strome is getting a raise from the $3.5 million deal he signed with the Capitals after the Chicago Blackhawks opted not to tender him a qualifying offer and made him a free agent. Strome has 11 goals and 25 assists in 36 games this season and ranks third on Washington’s roster with 14 power-play points.

    The Mississauga, Ontario, native who played his junior hockey alongside Connor McDavid with the Erie Otters has 206 points in 325 regular-season NHL games with the Arizona Coyotes, Blackhawks and Capitals.

    Golden Knights captain Mark Stone undergoes back surgery

    mark stone surgery
    Stephen R. Sylvanie/USA TODAY Sports
    2 Comments

    LAS VEGAS — Vegas Golden Knights captain Mark Stone is out indefinitely after undergoing back surgery in Denver, the club announced.

    The Knights termed the procedure as successful and that Stone “is expected to make a full recovery.”

    This is the second time in less than a year that Stone has had back surgery. He also had a procedure May 19, 2022, and Stone said in December this was the best he had felt in some time.

    But he was injured Jan. 12 against the Florida Panthers, and his absence has had a noticeable effect on the Knights. They have gone 1-5-2 without Stone, dropping out of first place in the Pacific Division into third.

    Stone is second on the team in goals with 17 and in points with 38.

    Devils associate coach Andrew Brunette charged with DUI

    brunette dui
    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
    1 Comment

    DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — New Jersey Devils associate coach and former Florida Panthers head coach Andrew Brunette was arrested in South Florida while driving home from a bar in his golf cart, authorities said.

    Brunette, 49, was pulled over just blocks from the ocean in the Deerfield Beach area, north of Fort Lauderdale, according to a Broward Sheriff’s Office arrest report. He was charged with one count of driving under the influence and two counts of disobeying a stop or yield sign. Brunette was released on $500 bond.

    The Devils said in a statement that the team was aware of Brunette’s arrest and gathering additional information.

    According to the arrest report, a deputy was in the process of giving Brunette’s illegally parked golf cart a ticket around midnight when Brunette walked out of a nearby bar and told the deputy he was about to leave. The deputy said Brunette seemed unsteady on his feet and slurred his speech, and when he was joined by his wife, the deputy said he overheard the wife tell Brunette not to drive while the deputy was there.

    The deputy remained in the area and reported watching the couple drive away about 17 minutes later, according to the report. The deputy said he watched the golf cart run two stop signs before pulling Brunette over on a residential street about a mile away from his home. According to the report, Brunette had difficulty following instructions during a field sobriety test before eventually quitting and asking for an attorney. He also declined to take a breathe test to measure his blood-alcohol level, officials said.

    Online jail and court records didn’t list an attorney for Brunette.

    Brunette is in his first season as associate coach of the Devils. He was interim coach of the Florida Panthers last season after taking over when Joel Quenneville resigned for his connection to a 2010 Chicago Blackhawks sexual abuse scandal.

    The Panthers fired Brunette after they lost in the second round of the playoffs last spring despite him leading them to the Presidents’ Trophy as the league’s top team during the regular season.

    The Sudbury, Ontario, native played 1,159 NHL games for Washington, Nashville, Atlanta, Minnesota, Colorado and Chicago from 1995-2012. He was a Wild assistant in 2015-16 and worked on Florida’s staff from 2019-2022.