NASHVILLE – The message being broadcast to the Pittsburgh Penguins prior to Dec. 12, 2015 failed to garner a response from the team.
They were 15-10-3 and having issues scoring goals, something you wouldn’t expect from a team that features an assortment of the NHL’s top offensive talent. Enter Mike Sullivan, whose message was well received and eventually led to a Stanley Cup.
One year later, Sullivan’s words haven’t grown stale and another Cup was being celebrated nearly 18 months to the day that he was promoted from the Penguins’ AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.
On Sunday night, Sullivan became the first American-born head coach to win multiple Stanley Cups and he joined Toe Blake as the only two bench bosses to win back-to-back titles in their first two seasons with a franchise.
“There’s been a lot of noise around the team about that,” said Sullivan about all of the repeat talk. “We’ve tried to keep the distractions to a minimum as best we can. But certainly we’re proud of this accomplishment. This group of players is a unique group. I know 20 years from now these guys are going to look back and be proud of what they’ve been able to accomplish.”
In two postseasons, the Penguins only lost consecutive games three times. It became a strong bet that if Pittsburgh dropped a game, they would almost certainly win the next one. His penchant for making adjustments between games is a big reason why they became almost slump-proof.
“He knows how to get to the guys. Whatever he says resonates,” said forward Nick Bonino. “He knows what to do. He makes the right tweaks at the right times and it usually works out.”
“He’s honest with us. He shows us if we played a good game, he shows us if we played a bad game,” said defenseman Brian Dumoulin. “He’s got confidence in our group no matter who’s out there.”
The Penguins finished the regular season with the seventh-most injured team in the NHL, according to ManGamesLost.com. Their battered and bruised lineup, especially on the blue line, was a reason why some stayed away from predicting a repeat when the playoffs began. Not having Kris Letang as their No. 1 defenseman could have submarined their chances, but instead the defense corps took a by-committee approach and it worked. While Nashville Predators head coach Peter Laviolette relied heavily on his top four defensemen, Sullivan was happy to keep the minutes for his back end relatively balanced.
“There were so many challenges along the way. I just think finding ways through all the ebbs and flows of the season and the adversities that we faced – the injuries that we endured,” said Sullivan. “I think a lot of people counted us out when we lost Kris Letang. He’s a hard player to replace. He’s a special player. But this group of players, they never looked for an excuse. They just looked for that next man up and they looked for ways to win. They challenge one another and that’s the mindset that this group of players has had since I’ve been here. I can’t say enough about the leadership of this team, that leads the charge in that regard.”
If you try and credit Sullivan for the Penguins’ success he’ll immediately bring up his coaching staff that played a huge role in the franchise’s turnaround from 18 months ago. The collective effort has now resulted in consecutive summers with Cup celebrations.
“I really feel fortunate to have the coaching staff that we have,” Sullivan said. These guys challenge me every day to be a better coach. The message that we’ve been preaching to these guys from Day 1, we’re fortunate that they’ve been receptive. They’ve been receptive; they’ve taken it to heart. We’ve found ways to have success.”
In the end, Sullivan will have his name on the Cup a second time because he conquered his biggest challenge: getting a buy-in from his players.
“This is a players game and these are the guys that go on the ice,” he said. “They make the sacrifices. They make the commitments, and they make the plays. Ultimately, they make the big plays to help win championships and these guys have found a way to do it year in and year out in my tenure here.”
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