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Crosby: Sullivan helped me improve this season

Penguins center says struggles turned around with new coach

by Tom Gulitti @TomGulittiNHL / Staff Writer

CRANBERRY, Pa. -- After Mike Sullivan was hired to coach the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 12, one of the first things he did was sit down individually with the players in the team's leadership group.

That, of course, included captain Sidney Crosby, who had gotten off to a slow start with six goals and 13 assists in the first 28 games of the season under fired coach Mike Johnston. Although the speculation Crosby's days as dominant player might be over at age 28 was off base, there definitely was something missing from his play.

From having coached against Crosby often during his five seasons as an assistant with the New York Rangers, Sullivan thought he knew what it was.

"This game, it's an emotional game and it's hard to be good in the absence of it," Sullivan said Tuesday. "We have to have controlled emotion, we have to channel it the right way, but emotion is a necessary part of competitive advantage and excelling in this game. And, from my experience of coaching against Sid, that's when he's at his best, and some of the early conversations that I had with Sid when I first took the team over was to try to light that fire in his belly that makes him so great."

Video: Crosby scores first career OT goal to even ECF

Fast forward to Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Final against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, and it's clear Crosby's fire is burning brightly now. Having been held without a goal for the eight previous games, Crosby appeared determined to end his drought; he had six shots on goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy and delivered five hits.

Crosby finally was rewarded when he scored 40 seconds into overtime to give the Penguins a 3-2 victory that evened the series 1-1 as it shifts to Amalie Arena for Game 3 on Wednesday (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

Sullivan pushed a lot of the right buttons Monday, as he has often since he took over the Penguins, including shuffling his line combinations to put Chris Kunitz on Crosby's left wing in place of the struggling Conor Sheary to begin the third period. Sullivan's decision to sit defenseman Olli Maatta also paid off, because Justin Schultz played a solid game in his place and the coach's faith in Matt Murray was rewarded with the rookie goaltender rebounding after a rough first period to hold the Lightning off the board the rest of the way.

Sullivan didn't deny he considered replacing Murray with veteran Marc-Andre Fleury after the first period, but Murray was grateful his coach stuck with him.

"It was only two goals, so I don't think I deserved to be pulled or anything like that, but I definitely appreciate him giving me that chance," Murray said. "You never want to come out of a game. You always want to be in there whether you're struggling or not and battle through it, and that's what I did [Monday]."

Crosby does not underplay the impact Sullivan has had on his play, saying, "He definitely helped me." The proof is in his performance.

Video: Crosby's OT winner gives Penguins 3-2 win in Game 2

In 50 regular season games after the coaching change, Crosby had 66 points (30 goals, 36 assists). Although Crosby went through a scoring lull in the second round against the Washington Capitals, he still ranks second on the Penguins with 12 points (four goals, eight assists) in 13 games in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and is heating up with points in four of the past five games (one goal, three assists).

"When there's a coaching change, especially as a captain you take a lot of responsibility on your shoulders and you expect more," Crosby said. "I wasn't happy with the way I started, and I think he just put me in situations and gave me opportunities to try to work my way back into things. He was just good holding everyone accountable, myself included, and making sure that I got better."

Crosby recalled how Sullivan set the tone in their relationship in that initial meeting.

"He coached with the Rangers and I've seen him a bunch, so he told me what he expected out of me as far as a player individually and as a leader and things like that," Crosby said. "It was pretty clear and he was very honest, and that's all you can ask for is for him to be straightforward like that and tell me what he thinks. … And it wasn't just me. I think he was very clear with everyone what he expected from each individual guy and, at that point, it was just a matter of us going out and doing that."

Crosby and the Penguins responded by going 33-16-5 under Sullivan in the regular season and rolled into the playoffs as the NHL's hottest team. After getting past the Rangers and the Capitals in the first two rounds, they need three more wins against the Lightning to reach the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2009.

"I thought it was important for me as a coach to establish a relationship with our leadership guys, so I tried to extend myself to all of those guys, but Sid in particular," Sullivan said. "The message that I tried to bring to the whole group was that the foundation of our team identity has to be our competitive spirit. It has to come from our passion to play, and so I tried to challenge these guys and Sid in particular to play with that necessary emotion. … And I think [with] our group certainly, the message resonated and we have a team right now that plays with competitive fire."

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