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Penguins seek fast start in Cup Final

Speed is key to Pittsburgh's approach against Sharks

by Nicholas J. Cotsonika @cotsonika / Columnist

PITTSBURGH -- The key to the Stanley Cup Final is speed. The Pittsburgh Penguins feel it is their advantage. The San Jose Sharks know they must neutralize it and generate speed themselves. The race begins in Game 1 at Consol Energy Center on Monday (8 p.m.; NBC, CBC, TVA Sports).

But speed is not just about how fast you can skate. It is about how fast you can think. It is about how the coaches strategize.

"It's more about knowing what's going to happen next," Penguins forward Carl Hagelin said. "Then your thought process gets a little bit faster, and then all of a sudden you look like a fast team out there. It comes down to anticipation. It comes down to people being on the same page."

The Penguins acquired a fast player, forward Phil Kessel, in the offseason. But they really decided to put the pedal to the metal when they changed coaches Dec. 12, replacing Mike Johnston with Mike Sullivan.

Johnston had taken over before the 2014-15 season, when the Penguins' issues were defense and puck possession. In the defensive zone, he wanted his centers to come back deep and everyone to keep opponents to the outside. In the neutral zone, he wanted his players to hang back, force turnovers and counterattack. In the offensive zone, he didn't like to send in three players on the forecheck and he didn't like his defensemen pinching too often.

The problem was, the Penguins, a team with elite talents such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, weren't playing to their strengths enough. Sullivan set out to change that.

"When you look at our core players, they all want to play a speed game," Sullivan said. "They can all skate. They all have real good hockey sense. They have the ability to move the puck and change the point of attack."

Video: PIT@TBL, Gm4: Kessel puts the Penguins on the board

General manager Jim Rutherford gave Sullivan more players who fit his style, acquiring Hagelin and defenseman Trevor Daley and promoting forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary from the minors.

In the defensive zone, the Penguins attack and try to force turnovers. When they get the puck, they try to move it up ice and through the neutral zone as quickly as possible, passing tape-to-tape if they can, otherwise putting the puck in an area where a race can be won. They try not to loop back and give opponents time to get on top of them. They try to get the puck behind the opposing defensemen as fast as possible to put them on their heels. They send in three on the forecheck. Their defensemen pinch.

Sullivan asks the Penguins to read and react, and that takes trust.

"There are times when you've got to chip a puck and maybe not make the fancy play," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It might not seem like a great play at the time, but it's not going to end up in your net. And there are times when you have to make a play. There's a clear pass to be made, and he expects you to make that too. I think it's about decision-making."

In short, the Penguins have gone from passive to aggressive, and that means they have gone back to playing a style similar to the one they played under Johnston's predecessor, Dan Bylsma. It's just a little different under Sullivan.

"I think we're probably [playing] a little more puck possession now," forward Chris Kunitz said. "Obviously the game's changed in four or five years, the way you put pucks in and get them back. It's not a high success rate when you're just throwing it in there to no one and trying to crash and bang and get it back. You have to skate it in, pull someone to you and have other guys playing with speed to get to those loose pucks. You have to put pucks in areas where you're more successful."

The Sharks do not have the Penguins' foot speed. But they have the ability to make you look slower than you are and make themselves look faster than they are. When they don't have possession, they pressure you all over the ice to take away your time and space. When they do have possession, they have the skill and hockey sense to move the puck quickly. When they get the puck in the offensive end, they can grind and keep it there.

It's hard to play fast when you don't have the puck, especially when you're stuck in your own end. The Penguins will have to get it and get going.

"We understand that's the type of game that's got us here," Crosby said. "If we're going to win, that's the kind of game it's going to take."

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