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Penguins willing to be ones 'taking that punch'

Pittsburgh toughness on display in tied series against Capitals

by Dan Rosen @drosennhl / Senior Writer

WASHINGTON -- Years of coaching against the Pittsburgh Penguins helped Mike Sullivan be certain of the one area he had to focus on when he got the job to coach Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the rest.

Sullivan, whether behind the bench as an assistant with the New York Rangers or the Vancouver Canucks from 2009-14, always thought the Penguins were a team that lacked the resiliency necessary to win on the big stage, in the big moment. Essentially, he thought they were thin-skinned, easy pickings, easy to knock off their game, to rattle.

"I just felt as though having coached against them for a number of years that that was an area where if we could challenge our guys to improve we could be a better team," Sullivan said. "I felt we could be more difficult to play against when we handle those adversities through the course of a game or within a stretch of games, a series or whatever it may be."

The players bought in. They're doing it. The Penguins have become a mentally tougher team. That has become as obvious as their speed and skill in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, particularly in their Eastern Conference Second Round series against the Washington Capitals.

It was perhaps never more evident than in a 2-1, Game 2 win at Verizon Center on Saturday, a victory that evened the best-of-7 series at 1-1.

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Carlson knocks down Crosby

The Penguins held it together despite internally seething at former teammate Brooks Orpik's questionable hit on Olli Maatta at 4:13 of the first period, causing an injury that left them with five defensemen for more than 55 minutes.

"We lose defenseman, we have five more," Malkin said. "We have 12 forwards who help the 'D' play 'D' zone."

They fought through post-whistle scrums, slashes to hands, wrists and legs.

"The ultimate goal is to win and we all have that in mind," Crosby said. "We know taking that hit or taking that punch is going to go a long way."

They had to get over the fact that their power play was flat-lining. It went 0-for-4 in the second period, 0-for-5 in the game, and is 0-for-7 in the series.

"We talked in-between periods about putting it behind us and not letting it deflate our group and that we were just going to continue to play," Sullivan said. "That's what we've talked with our guys about a lot."

Video: Letang talks to reporters after tonight's Game 2 win

The talk paid off in the third period, when after the Capitals predictably surged and scored a game-tying power-play goal at 4:08, the Penguins pushed right back, with a dominating shift-after-the-goal in Washington's zone.

"After they tied it up on the power play we could have folded and said it was a good try, but our team didn't give up," forward Eric Fehr said.

Fehr, a former Capitals player, scored the game-winning goal with 4:28 remaining.

"[Resiliency] always goes a long way no matter what team you play on and no matter what situation," Crosby said. "If you have that ability, you give yourself a chance every night to win. You've got to bounce back and we've done a good job of that all year."

There are theories why that is, starting with Sullivan and the fact he's been preaching resolve and playing their game, staying true to who they are since the day he got to Pittsburgh.

Eventually the message has to sink in if it stays consistent, to the point. The results started to come after Christmas, and the Penguins were 14-2-0 in their last 16 games of the regular season.

"I give our leadership a lot of credit," Sullivan said. "Their resolve gets challenged each and every night and these guys have really done a tremendous job. These guys have just handled situations the right way and that helps our bench."

Video: PIT@WSH, Gm2: Murray lays out for tremendous save

Crosby theorized that the Penguins became a resilient team because they were humbled by their slow start, which led to Sullivan taking over for fired coach Mike Johnston on Dec. 12. Crosby didn't limit the slow start to the players who were in Pittsburgh before Sullivan got there.

Defenseman Trevor Daley, who arrived in a trade on Dec. 14, was a shell of himself for the first two months of the season with the Chicago Blackhawks. He's become a top-four defenseman in Pittsburgh, whose importance might grow now if Maatta is out for an extended period.

The same could be said of left wing Carl Hagelin in his short stint with the Anaheim Ducks before he was traded to the Penguins on Jan. 16. Hagelin's speed and versatility has been paramount to the Penguins' success. He scored their first goal Saturday and has three points in the two games against Washington and four points in Pittsburgh's past three games.

"I think that's what has got us here," Crosby said of the resiliency.

It used to be what took them out. Now it seems that the Capitals can take whacks at them, hit them, injure them, score on them, and even beat them on occasion, and it won't matter. The only response the Penguins plan to offer is to be the team standing when the night is over, when the series is done.

That might happen, because it doesn't look like they're going to beat themselves anytime soon.

It wasn't always that way.

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