This was unimaginable in December.
With the Pens sitting near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings their hopes of even qualifying for the postseason looked bleak, let alone making any type of extended run.
Five months later, the Pens are set to host Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final against the San Jose Sharks at CONSOL Energy Center on Monday night.
“To the players’ credit, they showed a lot of resilience to dig themselves out of the hole and climb in the standings to the point where we are today,” head coach Mike Sullivan said. “It’s not a magic bullet. It takes a lot of hard work and it takes a lot of resilience from the players in the room and they did a terrific job.”
Along the way, there are many incredible stories of resurgence and redemption.
Sidney Crosby’s re-emergence as the best player in the NHL and a league MVP nominee. Kris Letang’s return to dominance from the blue line. A youth movement that featured top-end contributions from Matt Murray, Bryan Rust, Tom Kuhnhackl and Conor Sheary. Winger Phil Kessel’s clutch delivery in the postseason that has him mentioned as a possible Conn Smythe Trophy recipient as playoff MVP. The HBK Line. And on and on and on.
In fact, there are so many storylines about this team that it’s easy to miss the forest for the trees.
“I know there’s a lot of stories that surround this group, but the greatest story of all is the group itself,” Sullivan said. “When you’re part of something that’s bigger than yourself it’s a special feeling, and I know these guys have it right now.”
But at the heart of all the stories and the group is the same catalyst: Mike Sullivan.
The team has taken on the personality and identity of their head coach: fiery, fierce, intense, passionate, resilient, confident, commanding.
“You can see it every day at the rink,” said Game 7 hero Rust. “He brings a lot of energy, brings a lot of passion. It rubs off on the guys.”
“He’s a great motivator, but he’s not hard to talk to like some other coaches can be. He’s relatable,” Murray said. “He speaks really well. He’s a very good communicator. When he needs to, he can call you out and tell you when he wants more from you. He has everything you need to be a successful coach.”
For general manager Jim Rutherford, who made the mid-season decision to hire Sullivan, it comes down to the bottom line.
“The thing I like most is he wins,” Rutherford said with a smile before adding, “Everything comes from the heart. He treats everybody the same. He treats his top players the same as he treats his depth players. If somebody has to be told, ‘we need a correction somewhere,’ they’re told. But all the players respect that. He takes the time to communicate with them and really connected with the players.
“At the end of the day, we like him because he wins.”
It’s been a quite a journey for Sullivan, 48, as well. He was out of the coaching profession just last season when he took a job in player development with the Stanley Cup-winning Chicago Blackhawks.
But wanting another shot at being a head coach, he came to the Pens organization as the bench boss of the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton Penguins. It was his first head coaching job since leading the Boston Bruins, his hometown team, from 2003-06.
Sullivan, who spent several years in between as an assistant coach, waited nearly a decade before getting another chance to be a head coach in the NHL. He’s been around the coaching business long enough to know the frailty of the profession.
“There are only 30 head coaching jobs in the NHL,” Sullivan said. “I love what I do. I love being around the game. I love the interaction with the players. I love the competition.
“I don’t take one day for granted because I know how difficult it is. I truly love the going to the rink every day. I’m very fortunate to have this opportunity to coach this team.”
Sullivan’s opportunity came on Dec. 12. When he arrived in Pittsburgh to take over as the team’s head coach in relief of Mike Johnston, the Pens were in shambles. They were sitting in ninth place in the Eastern Conference and 15th overall in the NHL. Their captain, Crosby, was tied for 148th in scoring.
Most glaringly, a Pens team stacked with some of the best talent in the National Hockey League – a roster that read like an All-Star Team with former MVP and scoring champions Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and stars Letang and Kessel – couldn’t score. The Pens ranked 27th in offense and 26th on the power play.
It was a tough circumstance for a coach to take over. But Sullivan had a road map to follow to get the Pens to play the way he envisioned them playing – with speed, passion and resiliency.
"Right away (Sullivan) wanted to be clear both individually what he's asking for guys and what he thought the team should play like," Crosby said. "It was well understood and well received. We tried to respond as best that we could."
And Sullivan knew that in order to get the Pens to play that way, it would have to start in their heads.
“The most important element is to coach the mindset right off the bat,” Sullivan said on the day of his promotion to Pittsburgh. “That’s where I can have the most immediate impact, and that’s what I’m going to try to do.”
The Pens were mentally unstable. Their confidence was shattered. Sullivan even referred to them as “fragile.” It wasn’t an ideal situation for everyone involved.
“The reason I took the team over is because they were in a difficult circumstance,” Sullivan said. “When you’re in those types of situations where expectations haven’t been met, there’s a lot of pressure on everyone involved to perform. It’s not an easy environment to go to work in everyday.
“One of the things that I tried to do when I got here was not to dwell on the circumstances as far as the position the team was in. Just focus on trying to get better every day, focus on the details of hockey. That was my message to the players. We’re not happy with where we’re at, but it’s up to us to change it.”
The first people Sullivan needed to buy into his approach were the leaders in the locker room. And they believed right away.
“We were not in a really good spot in the league, but his message was to play with a lot of pace, play fast, use your assets,” Letang said. “He started to build this team in practice with high-intensity practices and to be able to sustain a lot of work and transfer it to the game.
“When you look at our roster you see guys with a lot of speed, character. You try to use those assets to be a successful team. I think that’s what he does.”
Sullivan used another phrase with regularity after arriving in Pittsburgh: resilience. He wanted the Pens to be a team that fights back and overcomes adversity. Not one that folds and succumbs to adversity.
That’s easier said than done. That attitude and tone has to be set at the top.
“It was important for me to show a certain level of resolve and resilience because that’s the very thing I’m asking my players to do,” Sullivan said. “So that’s what I tried to do for them, be a confident, calming influence.”
And the players noticed.
“We try to be a resilient group ourselves. He leads the way in that category,” Murray said. “No matter what happens during a game or the season, his message is always the same. That’s just to play, do what we’ve been taught, do what our game plan has been set out to be, not worry about anything else.”
So even after the Pens lost their first four games under Sullivan, he showed patience while the team found its way. Sullivan believed in his team and believed in his approach.
“It doesn’t happen overnight,” Sullivan said. “As a coaching staff you’re trying to sell a certain message or belief and a certain way to play. At some point results become important. That’s the hard evidence that you need for players to believe. We went through a process. We didn’t win right away. But we tried to show some resilience and send a reinforcing message to our players that we’re making progress and that results will follow.”
The first sign of the team’s turnaround came on New Year’s Eve in Detroit. The Pens trailed 2-0 after the first period. But instead of folding, as they had in the past, this time the Pens fought back.
Pittsburgh ran off five unanswered goals, including two by Letang, en route to a 5-2 victory. The Pens followed that up with comeback wins against Philadelphia, Vancouver and Florida. Against the Panthers the Pens rallied from a 2-0 deficit with six minutes left in the third period to win 3-2 in overtime.
And slowly, with each success, with each win, the belief started to spread.
“When you start winning some games,” Sullivan said, “the message reinforces itself because now you have the evidence that you need.”
The evidence was bountiful. There was no better team in the NHL down the stretch run of the regular season than the Pittsburgh Penguins. They went 33-12-5 to finish the year, including an 8-1 run to end the season, and wins in 14 of their last 16 games. During that time, the Pens topped the NY Rangers (three times), NY Islanders (twice), Washington (twice) and Nashville.
In a season-defining, make-or-break nine-game stretch in March against the Metro Division, the Pens went 7-2 and leaped all the way into the No. 2 seed.
And suddenly, things had changed.
“You could see it and feel it in the room,” Sullivan said. “The run we went on the last six, eight weeks of the season, we won an awful lot of games against some really good opponents. I think that really solidified a belief amongst our group that when we play a certain way we’re a very good team and hard to play against.”
And the Pens had many more hurdles to leap in the playoffs. They began their postseason run without their two-time All-Star and starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion) and top backup and AHL Goalie of the Year Murray (upper-body injury).
In stepped Jeff Zatkoff, who had only played only 42 minutes of relief duty in the previous two months. He only made 35 saves to help the Pens take a 1-0 series lead on the NY Rangers in the First Round. Then they turned to their 21-year-old rookie, Murray, to finish off future Hall of Famer Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers.
The Pens followed that by topping the Presidents Trophy-winning Capitals. That same 21-year-old outplayed the likely Vezina Trophy winner as NHL goalie of the year in Braden Holtby. The Pens even blew a 3-0 lead in Game 6 only to surge in overtime to eliminate Washington.
Once again, the Pens didn’t hang their heads. They charged ahead.
More adversity followed in the Eastern Conference Final after the Pens lost a 3-2 lead with three minutes left in the third period, only to fall to Tampa Bay, 4-3, in overtime of Game 5. That setback gave the Lightning a 3-2 series lead and a trip home with the Pens pushed to the brink of elimination.
But, yet again, the Pens responded. On the road and in a hostile environment, they played a dominant opening two periods of Game 6 to take a 3-0 lead, and then held off a late Bolts surge in the third period to force a decisive Game 7.
Then the Pens finished the job. With their most complete team effort, they pushed the pace and outmatched the Lightning en route to a 2-1 win to earn a berth in the Stanley Cup Final.
And behind it all was their head coach.
“I can’t even explain to you how excited I am for the group we have and how proud I am of them for how hard we play for each other,” Sullivan said following the game. “I’ve been in the game a long time, and you don’t always get to associate with a group that has the chemistry this group has, and when you do, it’s something special.
“I don’t know that there’s been a team in the league that’s faced more adversity than this team since the start of training camp. I believe that we have evolved into a team in the true sense of the word.”
No one could have foreseen this outcome in December. The same Pens team that was left for dead is now four wins away from the mountaintop.
“We didn’t think we would be in this situation around Christmas,” all-heart forward Patric Hornqvist said. “We were not even in a playoff race. Since January we’ve been a hell of a team. We’ve been improving every single day and I can’t say enough, how proud I am of this group. But we’re not done yet.”
Sullivan’s message to the team hasn’t changed over the course of the postseason, no matter what adversity they’ve had to face. And it surely won’t change now on the NHL’s biggest stage.
“We’ve got to embrace the challenge, embrace the moment,” Sullivan said. “It’s a great opportunity to play at this time of year, to put a stamp on these playoffs and finish what we’ve started.”