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Insider Only Penguins focused on being who they are and maintaining their identity through playoff run

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IN THE NAME OF THE IDENTITY

During this now decade-long run of consecutive NHL playoff appearances, the Pittsburgh Penguins’identity has been that of numbers.

87
71
29
58

And unfortunately….1. No, not as in Brent Johnson. As in just one Stanley Cup.

If this is the year that number turns to “2”, Penguin head coach Mike Sullivan wants Pittsburgh’s identity to remain what it has been as his club went 14-2 over the last month of the season.

87
81
62
58
6
4
43

And any one of the many others on that team that can skate with hair-on-fire kind of speed that you care to reference.

It’s an identity that seems to have reattached this club to its fan base. A fan base that loves to bask in its team’s storied history of Art Ross trophy winners (four different men/15 times). A fan base that gladly has turned out to watch elite offensive skill, even at the expense (at times) of defensive stability.

Back when Mike Johnston won 9-of-10 as coach earlier in the season, a lot of Penguins’ fans still seemed to hate every minute of it as the Pens were grinding through 60 minutes every night. Just two of those victories saw Pittsburgh score more than three goals.

As Sullivan’s Penguins’ have won 14-of-16, they’ve scored at least four goals in 11 of those games.

  • Possess the puck
  • Skate like hell
  • 18 skaters playing the same way
  • Score goals

That’s the identity of this Penguin team. And Sullivan doesn’t want to sacrifice that in the name of potential injuries in net. On Tuesday, Sullivan was asked if he or his players may feel an obligation to pull back on the fast paced offensive attack if third string goalie Jeff Zatkoff has to start Game One in goal.

“This team has established an identity for itself. And it has played to its strength for a long time. And I think there is a belief in the room that when we play a certain way, we give ourselves the best chance to win,” said Sullivan.

By that quote, it sounds as if Sullivan and his players are hell bent on thinking offense first even if the last line of defense is someone not named Marc Andre Fleury.

Or even, at this point, not named Matt Murray. But that was an argument for Monday.

And Sullivan isn’t just putting all of his eggs in the basket of his push-it-forward system. He also insists part of the reason the Penguins won’t change their approach against the Rangers even if goaltending depth is tested is that he believes Zatkoff and even recent call up Tristan Jarry are good enough to hold their own.

“Regardless of who we play we are confident that we have guys that can go in there and get the job done. We aren’t going to change the way we play if we make a lineup decision,” Sullivan reiterated.

One hand can wash the other to a certain extent. A lot of focus on the Penguins’ style of play seems to zero in on the defensive blue line out because of their increased goal scoring. But much of the success is credited to the defensemen moving the puck out of their own zone with their skating or passing abilities.

Since 2/21, Penguin opponents have scored more than three goals in a game just twice despite Pittsburgh’s increased emphasis on generating offense. Sullivan says the key to similar success against the Rangers is less about stellar goaltending bailing out his team’s skaters, and more about those other five players preventing cheap scoring chances for New York.

“They have a good counter attack game,” stated Sullivan. “It’s really important that you manage the puck appropriately, and that you don’t give them the chance to counter attack against you when you are vulnerable.”

By the conventional meaning of the word, the Penguins will be “vulnerable” if they have to play Game One with a third string goalie between the pipes. Just don’t expect the conventional reaction to those circumstances. You won’t see the Penguins trap a lot more. You won’t see them pack it in and build a house around Zatkoff.

You’ll see them be who they are. Not in the name of stubbornness or a lack of willingness to adapt strategy. But in the name of identity.

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About The Author

Tim Benz

TIOPS Columnist

Tim Benz can be heard on the Pittsburgh Steelers Radio Network post game show and M-F 10-1 on TribLive Radio

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