After the Penguins’ beat the Detroit Red Wings to win the Stanley Cup in 2009, it seemed as if those kinds of celebrations would be common occurrences for the talented young team.
Injuries and disappointment followed in the years to come. Captain Sidney Crosby sustained multiple concussions that made him a spectator for the better part of two seasons, and the Penguins made just one trip to the Eastern Conference final, where they were swept by the Boston Bruins in 2013.
Dan Bylsma, the midseason replacement who led the Penguins to a Cup win in 2009, was fired in 2014, and his replacement, Mike Johnston, was fired in December 2015.
But when the Penguins named Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach Mike Sullivan as Johnston’s replacement, Sullivan thought the team still was capable of hoisting the Stanley Cup that season.
“I certainly thought it was a possibility,” Sullivan said. “That’s everybody’s hope when they go into a new challenge in the NHL. When I first took this team over, I looked around the room, and I saw the talent that we had on the team. And I said that to our players in the very first meeting we had with them.”
Sullivan said the challenge was to take a roster full of talented individuals and turn it into a team — because it’s easier for a team to win a Cup than a spattering of isolated stars. The coach lost his first four games in command but sent the Penguins on an upward trajectory after that.
Key dates in Penguins history
Another coaching change
The Mike Johnston Era comes to a close on Saturday morning. Another Wilkes-Barre/Scranton coach, this time Mike Sullivan, shines. The Penguins finish the regular season 30-11-4 before another historical ending to the season.
Stanley Cup 4.0
The franchise's fourth Stanley Cup comes at, of all places, SAP Center, a builing that has haunted the Penguins over the years. Sidney Crosby wins his first Conn Smythe. Mike Sullivan officially becomes a Pittsburgh coaching legend.
That had been Johnston’s failure at the start of the 2015-16 campaign that saw the Penguins on a 15-10-3 start, ninth in the Eastern Conference and out of playoff contention — not harnessing the scoring power of players such as Crosby and blockbuster offseason addition winger Phil Kessel.
Remedying this problem was more of a “mindset change” than any great strategic overhaul. When the Penguins failed to meet expectations early in the season and endured a coaching change, that made it hard for these “proud” players to come to the rink every day, Sullivan said. He tried to “free [the] players up so they could act on their instincts and be at their best” by embracing the process, focusing on hockey and not letting outside circumstances or criticism overwhelm them.
“When we made the coaching change, it was definitely something that kind of sparked our team,” winger Bryan Rust said. “Coach Sullivan brought in his passion, which kind of was contagious throughout the locker room. Our team’s got a lot of really good players, and we’ve got a lot of skill. It was just the mindset and the workmen mentality that he kind of came in and instilled in everyone.”
Sparking the veterans was only part of the equation for the Penguins’ post-Johnston success. Sullivan also had to bridge the gap from those tenured players to the newcomers. Rust, along with fellow wingers Conor Sheary and Tom Kuhnhackl as well as goalie Matt Murray, started the season with Sullivan in the AHL and ended it as a key part in the Stanley Cup run.
The three wingers contributed 24 points to the playoffs while Murray, who emerged as the starter after concussions limited longtime netminder Marc-Andre Fleury, tallied a 2.08 goals against average and .923 save percentage in 21 starts. And those experienced guys such as Kessel, Crosby and center Evgeni Malkin nabbed 22, 19 and 18 points, respectively.
“I think it helped that we had guys who were older and who had won it before and who had been through it all because they helped out us younger guys or guys who haven’t won it before,” Rust said. “So I think there was a good mix of youthful enthusiasm and then veteran leadership.”
Sullivan said the fact that so many people added to the Penguins’ success is one of the best aspects of the team. He couldn’t pick out even one player on the roster who didn’t have a significant contribution on the road to winning the Stanley Cup in what the coach called a “collaborative effort from top to bottom.”
Rust said he believed the team started to hit its stride in early to mid-February and just kept building from there to make a run at the postseason. And by the time the Penguins lifted the Cup on June 12 at the SAP Center having overcome the San Jose Dharks in Game 6 of the final, the team was 40-19-5 under Sullivan — 33-16-5 in the regular season and 16-8 in the playoffs.
Winning what Rust and Sullivan consider as the hardest trophy in sports was the Penguins’ biggest accomplishment since their previous Cup seven years ago. There were pros, like the vast improvement of special teams, and cons, like missing out in Game 5 on being the first Pittsburgh team in 56 years to win a major league championship at home but Sullivan said he had no regrets.
And now, the coach will seek to fulfill the “twice is coincidence” part of the Moscow rules, by leading the Penguins to their second back-to-back Stanley Cup championships just like in 1991 and 1992. Sullivan said the upcoming 2016-17 season will be even more difficult than this past one, but it’s a good challenge to have.
Especially with how the players handled all the adversity from 2015-16 and still won the league.
“We were really proud of this group and how receptive they were to our message, how we came together and evolved into a team in the truest sense of the word,” Sullivan said. “And I think our players really enjoyed that process.”
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