We are almost exactly one year to the day where Mike Sullivan was hired as Penguins head coach and I think it’s safe to say he is no second coming of his predecessors Dan Bylsma or Mike Johnston. No regression is in sight with this team like it was with Bylsma. Now, of course, their rosters were made up of entirely different players. They each had different general managers, but both coaches were blessed with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, and Marc-Andre Fleury.
Watching the Penguins after a loss with the former two coaches, they were lackluster at best with no sense of urgency. Watching the Penguins play under Mike Sullivan…that’s a whole different story.
Monday night was more proof of that.
For the 49th time in a regular season game with Mike Sullivan at the helm, the Penguins came away victorious. Thirteen of those victories have seen them come back from at least a two-goal deficit. Just so you don’t have to pull your calculator out, that’s 26.5 percent of the Penguins’ regular season wins that they’ve erased a two-goal difference. Wow.
It obviously has a lot to do with the players on the ice, but it starts with Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan has cemented himself among consistent Jack Adams Award caliber coaches. He won a Stanley Cup in his first season as the head coach, much like the three coaches to win one in Pittsburgh before him had done. There is a difference with this coach though.
I won’t sit here and say I know enough about Badger Bob Johnson and Scotty Bowman because I was not born when these legendary head coaches graced the Penguins’ bench. Although, I can tell you one thing: They didn’t need to be resilient. When Mario Lemieux was dominating and carrying the team the way he was with the help of guys like Jaromir Jagr, Paul Coffey, etc., it never mattered because all they did was win.
In the modern day NHL where it’s virtually impossible to be as dominant as it was in those days, you need to be able to retain a short memory. Don’t get too high on wins. Don’t beat yourself up too badly over losses. Bylsma couldn’t retain that mentality.
He consistently gave off the impression that he didn’t press his players hard enough to be successful. He had the heated argument with Crosby during his final playoff run as the team’s bench boss. He wasn’t the guy.
The other Mike, who’s last name won’t be mentioned out of respect to Sullivan, was about the only person who found a way to shut down Sidney Crosby on a nightly basis. He relegated his most gifted defenseman to be nothing more than a mere train wreck on both sides of the puck. The other Mike found a way to be better than Drew Doughty without ever lacing up his skates for a single game with the Penguins.
General Manager Jim Rutherford has a lot to do with why players respect Sullivan enough to buy into his program and make the group a resilient bunch. He gives Sullivan a lot of free reign with lineup decisions and keeps his nose out of the coaching aspect of things. He simply sits back and gives Sullivan the weapons to deploy on the roster and Sullivan then finds a way to put each player in the best position to be successful.
Countless times do players come out and voice their support of Sullivan. This was something you couldn’t find with the other Mike. I remember Ben Lovejoy, the obvious nice guy and saving grace of the team last season, came out only a few days before the firing of the other Mike and voiced that the players hadn’t given up on him despite their losing ways to begin the year. It had become blatantly obvious that he was covering up something that was widely known.
Clearly, Sullivan has an advantage because he coached all of the young guns that have gotten the call up due to his short tenure with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton before taking over behind the Penguins’ bench. He already had an idea how guys like Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Matt Murray, and Tom Kuhnhackl (amongst others) could thrive and knew who’s game would best suit theirs. These mixed line combinations and 16 playoff wins later saw Mike Sullivan doing something he won’t soon forget:
I am willing to bet a hefty monetary amount that it won’t be long before we see Sullivan do that again. It may not be this season because hockey is the toughest sport to repeat in and I don’t think there is a doubt in anyone’s mind that that statement is true. Although, the Penguins didn’t lose any key guys from last season so anything is possible.
Regardless of what happens, I know that this will be no repeat of Michel Therrien or Dan Bylsma or the other Mike. This man’s accountability for his players is phenomenal. The mutual respect from coach to player and vice versa can hardly be ignored. This team is resilient. They get up when it’s time to get up. That all starts with your coach.