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Sullivan's tone resonates with Penguins

After following coach's lead, Pittsburgh one win from Stanley Cup

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

SAN JOSE -- It was Mike Sullivan's voice that stood out to Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Ian Cole.

"Very authoritative," Cole said. "Very deep."

Olli Maatta remembers the feeling in the dressing room when Sullivan spoke his first words to the Penguins after being named their coach Dec. 12. He was promoted from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League after general manager Jim Rutherford fired the softer-spoken Mike Johnston.

"When [Sullivan] started talking, you could feel the room, everybody listened," Maatta said. "That was something that really, really hit us."

The Penguins needed something to hit them hard. They needed a jolt.

Sullivan replaced Johnston when the Penguins were in a state of disarray. Captain Sidney Crosby was a shell of himself. Defenseman Kris Letang was injured. Forwards Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel were average. The Penguins were slow. They were 15-10-3 and out of the Stanley Cup Playoff race.

It didn't look any better in Sullivan's first week on the job. Pittsburgh lost four straight games by a combined 15-4.

From the outside it looked ugly and unfixable. The view inside the room was different. Sullivan saw progress.

Video: Malkin, Murray lead Pens to 3-1 series lead

"We felt as though our players were being receptive, that we had their ear, they were buying in," Sullivan said. "That's the biggest challenge as a coach, is trying to get the group to buy into the style of play or the details of the game, how you're trying to play, in order to get your group to the next level. From Day One this coaching staff had the sense that we had that from the players."

There's no debating that now. The Penguins are one victory away from winning the Stanley Cup. They went 33-12-5 in the last 50 games of the regular season and are 15-7 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

They can win the Stanley Cup in Game 5 against the San Jose Sharks at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Thursday (8 p.m. ET; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

They got here because of Sullivan's persistence.

He got the Penguins to play fast. Speed has become their greatest asset.

He unlocked Crosby and Malkin, and, eventually, Kessel.

Crosby became a Hart Trophy finalist. Kessel became the best third-line right wing in the NHL, at least by measure of the depth charts.

Malkin has sacrificed ice time in Sullivan's attempt to make the Penguins a four-line team. He had an assist and the game-winning goal in Game 4 and played 14:30.

"It doesn't matter how much he gives me time, I need to take this time and play my best game," Malkin said. "When Mike came to the team and we started winning we believed in him 100 percent. He's a good coach. We're playing in the Final because Mike came to the team. I believe in him."

Having coached them at the start of the season in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Sullivan's knowledge of rookie forwards Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl, Scott Wilson and Kevin Porter allowed them to make a seamless transition to Pittsburgh.

The first four have had a massive impact on the Penguins' playoff run.

Rutherford did his part by acquiring defenseman Trevor Daley and left wing Carl Hagelin. Sullivan found the right spots for them.

"I had a real short-term focus," Sullivan said earlier in the playoffs. "When I took this job over, my sole focus was to try to get better every day. Where that was going to take us, we really didn't concern ourselves with that. I think it's been that short-term focus that has allowed our team to continue to grow and develop as a group."

Sullivan's path here required a humbling climb. To get to Pittsburgh he first had to go back to the minors.

He was the coach of the Boston Bruins for two seasons, from 2003-06, but was fired when Peter Chiarelli took over as general manager and brought in Claude Julien. Sullivan joined his close friend John Tortorella as an assistant coach with the Tampa Bay Lightning and followed him to the New York Rangers and Vancouver Canucks.

He was with Tortorella for seven consecutive seasons, from 2007-14. After being fired by Vancouver along with Tortorella, he was a player development coach for the Chicago Blackhawks. He did not get his name engraved on the Stanley Cup.

Video: Sullivan on Malkin, team's momentum after Game 4 win

But Sullivan felt he needed to be a coach again. He wanted to do the job again. He wanted to put all of his years as an assistant and his one season in development to the test.

So he went to Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, a smart move considering the run of success the AHL franchise has had in putting coaches into the NHL.

Michel Therrien. Todd Richards. Dan Bylsma. John Hynes. Now Sullivan.

"It was a great opportunity for me to take a step back and be a head coach again," Sullivan said. "I've always had aspirations to be a head coach again in the NHL. One of the reasons I became an assistant coach in the NHL was to try to learn from someone that's had success, that's won a Stanley Cup, where I had an opportunity to hone the skills and the craft of the coaching profession. If an opportunity presented itself like this one, I would be more prepared for it."

His knowledge of the game grew through his years as an assistant. But he already had a solid base too.

"When he was at Boston University he was my tour guide when I visited the school," said NBC analyst Jeremy Roenick, who also played with Sullivan with the Phoenix Coyotes. "He's always been a hockey nut, a knowledge nut. The guy knows everything. He's a student of the game. He's always dissecting things. He always has an opinion. That's what makes him so good."

Sullivan brought all that knowledge and his commanding voice to Pittsburgh. His years as an assistant appear to be paying off. His control of the team, of the bench, has been remarkably sharp. The Penguins are composed. Their resiliency has become a trademark.

"He knows how to get through to a player," Sheary said. "Whether it's a good thing or a bad thing, he's going to let you know. I think that's his strength. You always know where you stand with him."

That goes back to the voice. It struck a chord with the Penguins when they first met him.

"That was probably the biggest [thing]," Maatta said. "The authority he had."

He might soon have a Stanley Cup ring too.

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