|Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Michel Therrien stressed that his team commit to playing an in- your-face style of defense during the season, and it ultimately led them to the Stanley Cup Final.
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It was Jan. 10, 2006. Therrien hadn't even been on the job for a month yet and his team already had eight losses under his guidance. This wasn't a time to be "Mr. Cuddly."
Therrien ripped into his boys by saying "there are a lot of guys that don't care. They pretend to care, but I know they don't care."
He called his defensemen "soft," and stated that he was "really starting to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the League, and they're doing such a great job."
"He was obviously emotional," Sidney Crosby said in Philadelphia last week, "but what he was saying wasn't necessarily off."
Actually, what he was saying made a heck of a lot of sense. The Penguins were never going to be a good team, let alone a Stanley Cup contender, if they didn't commit to playing strong, hard-nosed defense.
"What will those guys say if we take 50 percent of their salary because they only play for 50 percent of the time?" Therrien said that night. "That's enough."
When they open the Stanley Cup Final on Saturday in Detroit (Game 1 8 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS, NHL Radio), the fully compensated Penguins can take pleasure in the perspective they gained from Therrien's famous, prophetic tirade.
Nearly two and a half years later, they are the best defensive team in the Stanley Cup Playoffs with a 1.86 goals-against average and a 12-2 record with three shutouts.
"At that time, I decided to be tough, to do it the hard way," Therrien said. "It's never fun. It's never easy. It's not fun when you have to break down mentality to a team, but looking where we are right now, we're pleased we did it that way, by trying to change the mentality of everyone. To be a winner is tough. It's demanding. And I believe right now we're starting to be recognized as winners."
That the Penguins lost, 6-1, in Columbus the night following Therrien's outburst – and six more in a row before finally beating Washington, 8-1, on Jan. 25 – did little to deter the coach from thinking the message got through the same night he delivered it.
"Sometimes you can't judge a team with results," Therrien said. "The next game we looked like a team. They looked like they cared. It took us some time to get results, but that little light at the end of the tunnel, I started to see it that day (in Columbus). They showed a little bit more character in that game. Honestly, I remember that game like we just played it yesterday. That was the first step to where we are right now."
Many other steps have followed as the Penguins have climbed the staircase to the next to last floor of greatness. That Therrien got a young team to buy into playing a gritty brand of defense is arguably the greatest challenge this coach has overcome in his career, which includes winning the Memorial Cup in 1996.
"We know that's how you have success, to do it that way," right winger Marian Hossa said. "Everybody is sacrificing and coming back hard to the D."
The Penguins were rewarded last season when they made the playoffs by finishing with 105 points, a stunning 47-point turnaround. Therrien finished as runner-up for the Jack Adams Award, given to the League's Coach of the Year.
This season, and especially in the playoffs, Therrien's team has played remarkably sound defense. The Penguins allowed 2.58 goals per game, which ranked them 10th in League during the regular season. That number has dipped to 1.86 per game in the playoffs, which is best in the League.
Many believe veteran defenseman Sergei Gonchar, known throughout his career as an offensive specialist, could have been nominated for the Norris Trophy. Gonchar was a plus-13 this season. He was a minus-13 two seasons ago when the Penguins finished dead last in the NHL with 58 points.
Crosby was a plus-18 this season. He was a minus-1 as a rookie two years ago. Ryan Malone, a minus-22 in 2005-06, was plus-14 this season. Maxime Talbot, who is turning into one of the League's best defensive forwards, was a plus-8 this year after being a minus-12 as a rookie two seasons ago.
Defenseman Brooks Orpik was a plus-11 this season, a stunning turnaround following his porous minus-36 in 2003-04, which he followed up with a much-improved minus-3 rating in 2005-06.
"It doesn't come naturally, especially with skill players, but they bought into it," Therrien said of team defense. "They understand if we play well defensively and if they stick to the plan they're going to get rewarded. It's not just about playing well without the puck. We try to teach those young guys they need to play well with the puck. Puck management is really crucial for us. They have really, really bought in."
They have because the guy in charge would have it no other way.
Therrien realized after 11 games behind the bench that if he didn't do something immediately to change the mentality, he may never have gotten a second chance.
"When you're in last place there is a reason," Therrien said. "We have gotten some good players over time, but the commitment was not there. If we wanted to have some success we had to change everything – attitude, work ethic, commitment – because we were going in the wrong way. When I got there I tried to be positive a lot with the players. After a month it was the same result, so how long was I going to wait?"
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