It’s still early in the season, but the back-to-back Stanley Cup Champion Pittsburgh Penguins need to bring a little urgency back to their game.
Playing the Right Way Requires Urgency
Almost from Day One, Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan has preached something he calls, “playing the right way.” For his current system, he means winning races to pucks and retaining possession in the attacking zone. Defensively, it means challenging the opponent everywhere with speed and relentlessness. It’s a great system for the Penguin’s players, who excel at speed and skill. However, it also requires a high level of sustained performance, something Sullivan often refers to as “urgency. ” That is difficult to do, night in and night out, in the grind of the NHL’s regular season slog.
Making the playoffs is almost a sure bet for these Penguins, so it’s easy to understand why it might be hard for them to be amped-up for every game. After all, at this point, what do they have left to prove? Simply put, the main danger Sullivan and these Pens must avoid is complacency.
Falling Into Bad Habits
The Penguins are a confident bunch, and they should be, but on most nights, the team that wants it more has a much better chance of winning. Exhibit #1? The blowout losses this season. It was easy to see which team was hungrier.
In the first season of Mike Sullivan’s tenure, as the regular season was winding down, watching the Pens play was a real treat. They were so overwhelming, I was always describing their attack as a buzzsaw. For the most part, they shredded the opposition, all the way to the Stanley Cup.
Last season, the buzzsaw was back at times, especially during the playoffs, but it was not quite as consistent. We won the Cup anyway, so no big deal. This season, I have only seen that urgency for about 2 periods. The good news is that they showed they *can* still play like that. But as a team, they need to bring it a bit more often. If nothing else, they need to get back to playing like that more often then not.
The Bad Old Days
As Pens fans, most of us are easily reminded of the disappointing years before Mike Sullivan. Even with Fleury, Letang, Crosby, Malkin and a rotating cast of over-priced rentals, the talent-laden Penguins became tagged with the “under-performing” label. There were calls to break up the core star players and many folks questioning Crosby’s leadership. We knew what the stars were capable of, but when playoff time came around, they seemed to be smothered by the opposition – no ice, no pucks, no shots, no glory. What the Deuce?
The problem back then was a form of complacency. The supporting cast was not very strong, but the Penguins would win games mostly on the back of the stars. This worked OK in the regular season, so players, coaches and GM folks were mostly OK with that. However, in the playoffs, you must have more than 3-4 players that can make things happen. The front office and coaching staff at that time were too complacent – feeling that the supporting cast just needed to “hold the fort” and wait for the stars to do the rest.
That was not a playoff winning strategy. Since GM Jim Rutherford took over, the front office has shown a priority and skill in identifying and bringing in talent up and down the line to fit the Penguin’s system of speed and skill. With better use of analytics, they have been able to establish the strongest Penguins lineup in decades, and that’s a good thing.
However, it’s time for this year’s team to find it’s identity. Time to start playing “Penguins Hockey” on a routine basis. It’s an old adage that you can’t just “turn it on” in the playoffs. Even though there are many weeks and games to play, the Pens have get back to playing with Sullivan’s urgency a bit more often.
Show us the buzzsaw.