As symbolism goes, the Penguins couldn’t have done a much better job of closing the book on a disappointing 2015 than they did New Year’s Eve in Detroit.
After hinting at a newfound resilience the night before in Pittsburgh, evening the score twice against the Toronto Maple Leafs before ultimately losing, 3-2, in a shootout, Thursday the Penguins might have turned in their signature performance of the year. Down 2-0 after the first period, Pittsburgh dug deep in the next 40 minutes to score five unanswered goals. The stars led the way with the markers coming from Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Patric Hornqvist and two from Kris Letang.
“The best part of the night for me was, we get down two, we’ve been under difficult circumstances, and the way we responded – it’s exciting, because it’s hard evidence that, when we play the right way, we can beat a good team,” said Mike Sullivan, coming up on three weeks into his tenure as head coach. “And I think when we have, it starts with our attitude and our resilience to the adversities that take place, and this team has been through a fair amount of them.
“To respond that way, in this type of game, speaks volumes for the type of people we have. I think it starts with our leadership, and I thought those guys really did a great job as far as leading by example on the ice.”
And that starts with the man who wears the C on his sweater. Crosby – who started the season with career-worst numbers – is heating up, with eight points (3G, 5A) in his last six games that suggest he may not be as washed up at age 28 as his critics believed. He’s also played a key role in reinvigorating a power play that, for much of the season, had been sapping the Penguins’ momentum more often that generating it.
“I think it started with the puck battles,” Sullivan said after his club went 2-for-3 with the man-advantage Thursday. “We talked to the guys after the first period and said, that’s where our game has to start. We’ve got to win puck battles – 5-on-5, on special teams, all over the rink. It’s such a big part of winning and losing, I think, and it’s one of those things that’s difficult to quantify. It doesn’t show up in the statistics, but it’s those thankless jobs that help teams win and make you tough to play against. [Against both Toronto and Detroit], we win a puck battle along the wall and we score.
“And I think our guys are at their best, you can see their skill level and their instinctive play, when they have possession and they move the puck. Where we get in trouble sometimes is, when there’s a loose puck or a rebound, we don’t retrieve with the urgency and the numbers we need to keep the puck and keep the zone. I think a good indication of when our power play is at its best is when we all participate in that aspect of the game.”
In other words? Keep it simple.
“Just shoot the puck,” Crosby said. “We’ve got guys who go to the net pretty hard; [Hornqvist] has done a great job of being there. I think it’s just that mentality of not being too cute and getting the puck to the net.”
“I think just our mindset has switched a little bit,” Hornqvist said. “Shoot when you get the chance, then you get the retrievals and then [the opposition] is going to have to open up. Before that, we tried the same plays right away and it’s hard against the tight blocks.”
Perhaps the most important reason for optimism, however, is that the Penguins are starting to believe – in themselves, in the team concept and structure instituted by the coaching staff, and in one another. That’s a significant change from Malkin’s assessment just more than a month ago that the club was “not working hard, mad at each other,” and needed to “stop, look in the mirror and start to work.”
“I think we’re starting to trust each other playing the right way,” said backup goalie Jeff Zatkoff, who held the fort to deny 25 Red Wings shots in those final two periods as the Penguins bounced back. “Maybe not playing as much run and gun but trusting our system, trusting our skill that, if we manage the puck and get pucks deep, no matter the score in the game, we’re going to get those opportunities. We started off slow [against Detroit] and we weren’t happy but, we knew if we got back to the way we should play, things would turn around.”
Do the Penguins have enough time to turn the season around, not just to get into the playoffs – they’re currently three points behind Detroit for the final wildcard spot in the East – but to compete this spring? Crosby said he’s ready for the challenge.
“It’s an important time of the year with where we are in the standings and what we have in front of us,” he said. “A lot of teams have tightened the standings and every point’s important. The next little while’s going to be a good test, a good challenge for us. And we’ve been playing some pretty decent hockey here the last couple weeks – so, hopefully, we can get rewarded if we continue to play the same way.”