The Pittsburgh Penguins' experience could be invaluable during the Stanley Cup Qualifiers, coach Mike Sullivan said.
With training camp scheduled to open July 10 in Phase 3 of the NHL Return to Play Plan, Sullivan said he understands it will differ from how he would handle players returning from a typical offseason. The coaching staff already has the team selected and is comfortable with the roles it has for certain players.
The Penguins could have 11 players who were part of Stanley Cup championships in 2016 and 2017, including forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and defenseman Kris Letang, who also helped Pittsburgh win the Cup in 2009. That level of experience has made those decisions easier for Sullivan and his staff, the coach said.
"I think these guys have been through a lot in their careers, and because of that they have the benefit of perspective," Sullivan said Wednesday. "So I think it serves them well in uncertain times like this. I know in the discussions that I've had with our guys, and in particular our leadership group, these guys look at what's in front of us as a great opportunity.
"And so they're trying to do everything in their power to get themselves ready and to prepare themselves for that opportunity because they also know how hard it is to win and that we're going to have to go out and earn it every single day. That leadership, that experience, for me, is invaluable at this time."
Video: Top 10 Penguins Plays ... Thus Far
Pittsburgh, which was 40-23-6 (.623 points percentage) when the season was paused March 12 due to concerns surrounding the coronavirus, is the No. 5 seed in the Eastern Conference and will play the Montreal Canadiens, the No. 12 seed (31-31-9, .500) in a best-of-5 qualifier series when Phase 4 begins at a date and hub city to be determined. The winner will advance to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and the loser will have a chance at the No. 1 pick in the 2020 NHL Draft in the Second Phase of the NHL Draft Lottery.
"There's a lot to play for," Sullivan said. "These guys are proud guys. I guess I can only speak for how I feel about our players in Pittsburgh, but in my conversations with a lot of our players, I know they're excited to play and I know how much of an opportunity they see in front of them. Now, obviously, we have to go out and earn it, but I think that drive and that motivation to win a Stanley Cup is going to force players into a quick adjustment process."
When evaluating Montreal, Sullivan said he thinks its biggest strength is its structure, speed and counter-attack. He also mentioned the ability of goalie Carey Price.
"We expect a hard-fought battle," Sullivan said. "It's going to be a scenario where we know we're going to have to fight for our scoring chances. We're going to have an element of patience associated with our game so that we don't force plays that aren't there and turn into a high-risk team. So we know it's going to be a hard-fought battle."
The Penguins won two of three games against the Canadiens this season, most recently 4-1 at home on Feb. 14. Montreal won 4-1 at Pittsburgh on Dec. 10, despite getting outshot 34-26. The Penguins won 3-2 in overtime at Montreal on Jan. 4.
Sullivan said he can't remember much about the Dec. 10 loss and doesn't find value in looking that far back, but he said he has been scouting some of Montreal's final games from before the season was paused.
"There's a lot of parity in this league," Sullivan said. "There's such a fine line between winning and losing. The difference between the top-five teams and the middle-of-the-pack teams is not that significant. That's just the reality of the League in today's game. Every night is a hard-fought battle, regardless of who your opponent is, and that's what we expect.
"We have a lot of respect for Montreal and the players that they have, the coaching staff that they have. This is a well-coached group, and we're going to have to be at our very best."