When head coach Mike Sullivan was hired, he spoke of the identity he wanted his Pittsburgh Penguins to establish – hardworking, accountable, tough to play against.
In what may be their signature win under the new bench boss so far, the Penguins did just that Saturday night in Florida, coming back from a 2-0 deficit in the final six minutes of regulation to beat the Panthers in overtime.
Incredibly, that’s a first in the history of the franchise. And Pittsburgh pulled it off:
in the second of back-to-back games;
after a 6-3 letdown in Tampa the night before;
without Evgeni Malkin on the trip due to injury;
with about two lines’ worth of recent AHL call-ups on the roster;
against the second-best team in the Eastern Conference; and
after spotting Florida a 20-shot first period.
“This was a real gut-check for our team, and I think it’s a testament to the character that we have and the leadership that we have,” Sullivan said. “We didn’t get the start we wanted; certainly [spent] more time in our end zone than we would like. But, as the game went on, we started to elevate our compete level.
“The foundation of this team and the identity of this group has to start with our compete level and our energy. And I thought it started tonight with Sid [Crosby] and Kris Letang. Those guys were tremendous.”
Crosby and Letang combined for all three goals, with recent blueline addition Trevor Daley chipping in on the final two, including Letang’s OT winner. That’s fitting, as it’s in large part the resurgence of both players that has the Penguins in a proper playoff spot – third place in the Metropolitan Division – for the first time in months.
Letang has eight goals and 14 assists in his past 14 games. Crosby, whose first half of the season was far enough from his own lofty standards that he was passed over as an NHL All Star, extended his point streak to 10 games (10 goals, eight assists).
It’s been a good 2016 for Crosby and Letang so far. With 22 (13G, 9A) and 19 (6G, 13A) since the ball dropped on the new year, they’re No. 1 and 3 in the league in scoring, respectively, with only Chicago’s Patrick Kane – who’s played a few more games – separating them.
Letang also struggled to start the season, for reasons that could’ve ranged from former coach Mike Johnston’s suddenly ill-fitting system to the loss of steady longtime defensive partner Paul Martin. For Sullivan, the conversation with Letang has been about playing a smarter, less risky game.
“He’s a special player in my mind,” Sullivan said. “He can really skate, he can defend, he helps us get out of our end zone, he logs tons of minutes. He’s one of those guys that’s a difference-maker. Sometimes, when he’s not at his best, I think he forces the game and he chases it a little bit instead of allowing it to come to him. I’m trying to just keep him in check as far as him being calculated on when he joins the rush, when he gets involved and when he needs to stay behind the attack in case he has to defend.
“I think he’s picking his spots and, because of that, he’s playing a more efficient game. He’s not playing goal line to goal line. And you can see the impact he has on our team when he’s in the lineup. He’s put a stretch of work here for our team that’s really helped us climb back in this playoff race.”
No less an authority than Crosby also heaped praise on Letang’s high level of play.
“It’s hard to match the way he’s playing right now,” Crosby said. “You think at different points he’s had an impact on the game but it seems like – offensively, defensively, the way he’s skating – he’s all over the ice. And he’s doing it all game long. It’s not easy on back-to-back nights to be carrying the play like that, and he’s just doing an incredible job to help us out on both sides of the puck.”
Letang deflected the credit back to the team – “I think we kind of see [ourselves] getting more and more confidence,” he said, and “starting to get more comfortable” under Sullivan.
As for his take on Crosby, Letang isn’t as impressed, if only because he’s seen it a time or two before.
“We say that every season when he’s got a streak or something going,” Letang said. “In my mind, he’s the best player in the world; there’s no doubt about it.”
Right now, there’s little doubt that both are both among the best players in the world, complementing each other much as they did on the game-winner Saturday, when Crosby drew attention in front of the net and sent a pass across the slot, right onto Letang’s stick for the one-timer.
“I know he’s got great vision,” Letang said. “I saw them kind of pushing with two guys so it opened the back door; he made a great play.”
They’re leading the way for the resilient Penguins – who, in winning six of their past eight contests, are inching closer to where they were expected to be at the start of the season.
“We certainly appreciate their level,” Sullivan said. “For me, those two guys put the team on their backs [Saturday]. They raised their level at a critical time in the game.
“We’ve talked a lot since I’ve been here about resilience, about staying with it, about not getting distracted or deflated regardless of how the circumstance occurs in the game. The first half of that game wasn’t pretty by any stretch. Every team goes through those ebbs and flows, and our guys found a way. I think that’s an indication of the leadership we have. It starts with those guys, and I thought those two were terrific tonight.”