Wednesday night, the Pittsburgh Penguins lost to the New York Rangers, by a score of 3-0. The last time these two teams played was April 24 of last year, in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, in which the Penguins fell to the Rangers 2-1, thus ending the former’s playoff run.
Although the result of these two games was the same in the win column, with the blue-shirts coming out victorious both times, the direction of the club from Pittsburgh could not have been more different.
At the end of last season, the Penguins limped into the playoffs, qualifying in their final game of the regular season. Once in, they faced the hottest team in the league — New York.
Although the games were all decided by one goal, the Penguins were blatantly outmatched by a Rangers club that outplayed and outcoached them on the way to losing the series, four games to one.
Not much changed for the Penguins at the start of this season. They never looked like a true unit and lacked the offensive flair that was the team’s staple not long ago with superstars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
But, this was the team that Pittsburgh hockey fans had witnessed, and had gotten used to since the beginning of the 2014-15 season, after they hired Mike Johnston as their head coach.
Johnston preached a strong defensive mindset to his team and focused less on the offense, on which the team was accustomed to. This meant more defensive responsibility for the forwards, especially the centers. So as expected, the Penguins faltered offensively, in large part leading to their early exit last spring.
The addition of Phil Kessel this past summer gave hope that the offensive flair could be reignited this season.
At least it wasn’t under the leadership of Johnston.
Besides a few weeks of a fairly strong showing by Malkin, almost none of the offensive firepower was being displayed. For a team that featured the likes of playmakers Malkin and Crosby, a sniper in Kessel and Kris Letang’s offense on the back end, this team was dramatically underperforming.
Crosby, the world’s best and most dynamic player, was the epitome of the offensive ineptitude under Johnston. Before Johnston arrived, Crosby’s career points per game (ppg) average was 1.4.
Under Johnston, he had an average of 0.98 ppg. This is not a terrible average for a good player, but, for a generational talent at the level of Crosby, it was worrisome, to say the least.
This fall saw the worst slump of Crosby’s career. In 28 games, Crosby’s ppg was 0.79, and he had only 6 goals. By points, he looked sub-par, but the eye test wasn’t there either. He never stole the show and displayed the vintage Crosby that so many were accustomed to witnessing.
Two months can heal some deep and festering wounds. Well, two months and a coaching change can, at least.
The Penguins parted ways with Johnston on Dec. 12, and brought up the coach from the Wilkes-Barre Scranton Baby Penguins – Mike Sullivan.
Sullivan stopped emphasizing defense, and instead just emphasized making the right play, whether offensively or defensively.
That strategy has obviously struck a chord with the players, and now they are playing like one of the best teams in the league, and one, finally playing to its potential.
Crosby is, once again, the primary example of this; Sullivan’s entrance, followed closely by an awakening from the Penguins captain.
Entering Wednesday night against the Rangers, Crosby had played 23 games under Sullivan, and had 31 points, tallying 18 goals. He had his 11th game point and seven-game goal streaks broken, just Wednesday night. Crosby finally has found his groove again.
The Penguins, too, have found their groove once again. The players are playing as a unit and look in sync, and the stars are playing like stars, especially Crosby and Letang, as of late.
This team isn’t forcing anything anymore, and it is thrilling to watch, because these talented players are being allowed to display their skills.
Mike Sullivan has re-energized and re-invented this team by having them go back to what made them great players, and a great team, to begin with.
Ernecoff is a Titusville High School alumni, currently enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh. He is an avid Pittsburgh sports fan.