Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan has been endlessly impressive in his two seasons at the helm.
Obviously there’s proof of concept with the Stanley Cup last year, using a system that stressed speed and skill, allowing his stars to shine and asking his defensemen to just get the puck the hell out of the defensive zone as quickly as possible. Then, in the 2016-17 regular season, he kept a steady hand on the wheel through injuries and guided the Penguins to second in the Metro.
He out-coached his friend John Tortorella and the Columbus Blue Jackets in Round 1. He out-coached Barry Trotz and the Washington Capitals in Round 2, but did a little more than that: He helped the Penguins stay poised after slipping to a Game 7, and replicated the template that beat the Capitals in that arena twice earlier in the series.
So far, there isn’t a template for beating the Ottawa Senators, as the Penguins have done it only once. We saw glimpses of it in Game 2 – smart dump-ins that used the Penguins’ speed to establish a forecheck, some added pressure from the defense, scoring the first (and only) goal.
Then in Game 3, the Penguins were knocked on their asses.
Sure, you can’t account for a fortunate bounce that gives Mike Hoffman a goal just 48 seconds in the game, but you have to give credit to Sullivan’s counterpart, Guy Boucher, who brought the house in the first period in ways the Senators hadn’t before. (Mark Methot doubled his playoff points in one period.) He also boldly matched Erik Karlsson against Sidney Crosby, perhaps sensing what we all sense about Sid Post-Niskanen Incident, which is that Karlsson could very well win that matchup.
Unless the Senators went into full collapse, the game was over after the first period. So Sullivan tried to paint a sunny picture with the Penguins play after it was already four-to-goose.
“Listen, we had a fair amount of scoring chances. It’s not that we didn’t have chances to score. I think the score of the game is not an indication of how the whole game is played out. So it’s not like we didn’t do anything right out there. We had a fair amount of scoring chances we didn’t convert on,” said Sullivan.
Sullivan is a great coach. The great ones mould and shape their game plans to overcome new challenges. They adapt on the fly. Frankly, the most intriguing individual heading into Game 4 isn’t on the ice, he’s behind the bench: What will Mike Sullivan do?
Does he swap Marc-Andre Fleury for Matt Murray, or does he run the risk of witnessing their beloved veteran turning into a pumpkin in two straight road games and potentially costing them the series? Loyalty or logic? Or is loyalty the logical move?
Can he, once again, figure out a combination of players to overcome the tremendous manpower disadvantage the Penguins currently have due to injury? They played Game 3 without Justin Schultz, Bryan Rust and Patric Hornqvist, all of whom scored in Game 7 against the Washington Capitals. They played with seven defenseman, trying to compensate for an injured Trevor Daley returning to the lineup and the absolute exhaustion that has to be dogging guys like Ian Cole at this point.
“This is the circumstance we’re in. We’ve been in it for a long time. We know we have capable guys that can step in and get the job done, and we’ve got to find ways to win. That’s our challenge, and that’s our expectation. We’re not worried about it,” said Sullivan after Game 3. “We’re going to use the guys that we have. We’re going to try to put them in positions to be successful. And then we’re going to learn from each experience, and then we’re going to move by it, and we’re going to attack the next game.”
On top of all of that, can he continue to chip away at a defense that’s limited the Penguins to two even-strength goals in three games, having scored 26 goals at 5v5 in their previous 12 playoff games?
“This is the nature of, when you’re playing a seven-game series, you have to have the ability to respond. There’s no doubt in my mind this group of players will,” he said.
The Penguins, and their coach, will respond. But after three games, it’s a legitimate concern for Pittsburgh that no matter how its coaching staff regroups for Game 4, the players might have too many miles and too many bruises on them in the postseason to overcome these Senators.
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