When Mike Sullivan became head coach of the Pens back on Dec. 12, he said the biggest challenge would be to take a group of great players and become a great team.
And now, on May 9, with his club having a chance to eliminate the Washington Capitals in Game 6 of their second-round matchup – he feels they have done just that.
“That’s why we’ve been able to enjoy some of the success we’ve had the last couple of months,” he said. “We’ve had big plays from different people that step up at key times. I really believe that we have become the essence of a team in the sense that we don’t rely on any one or two or three guys to help this team win. It’s about the group. We all know that.”
And that’s why Sullivan isn’t singling out his franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for their relative lack of offensive production in the series after ranking 1 and 2 in team scoring during the first round with a combined 15 points (5G-10A).
“What we’re preaching to those guys, and to all of our guys, is to play the game the right way,” Sullivan said. “Let’s play the game hard, let’s play the game smart, let’s understand what our team concept is. And when we do that, everything else will take care of themselves.
“These guys are having an impact on the game. They may not have the offensive production everybody grows accustomed to with these guys, but they have certainly had an impact on this series – more so than I think (the media) gives them credit for. They share a tremendous amount of responsibility for our group and they’re doing everything within their power to help our team win.”
That all being said, moving forward those guys want to be the difference makers that they are – starting in Tuesday’s clinching scenario.
“I want to play better next game, of course,” said Malkin, who has one goal and one assist through five games. “I have a couple chances but I need to score, have more points, help the team to win.”
Crosby, who was named one of three finalists for NHL MVP on Saturday, agreed.
“You want to produce more,” said the captain, who has two helpers. “Individually, I’d like to create a little bit more around the net. You’ve got a better chance the more opportunities you’re able to generate.”
Crosby has been tasked with going up against All-Star center Nicklas Backstrom for most of the series. And ever since a tough outing in Pittsburgh’s 4-3 overtime loss in Game 1, Crosby has done a tremendous job – to the point where Caps head coach Barry Trotz moved Alex Ovechkin and TJ Oshie off Backstrom’s wings in Game 5 to get them away from that matchup.
However, Crosby said that it wasn’t enough for his line to simply be strong defensively.
“I think that’s more to be expected than it is to really kind of hang your hat on it,” Crosby said. “I think offensively, that’s where we have to make sure that we’re creating things and having an impact on the game and I think we’ve done some good things.
“They’re low-scoring games, there’s not a lot of room and space out there. We’ve done some good things and created some goals out there, but regardless, I think you always want more. You always want more opportunities; you always want to have more of an impact and find ways to score goals.”
When asked how those two could find those ways to get going in the offensive zone with their respective lines – Crosby practiced between Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary while Malkin skated with Chris Kunitz and Eric Fehr – Sullivan said for him it begins with getting shots on goal.
“I think ‘Sid’ and ‘Geno’ are working down low,” Sullivan said. “They had a lot of zone time in (Game 5). They had a lot of possession time. I think as a whole, as a team, even though we generated a somewhat decent amount of shots (31) I think we can look to continue to simplify our game and get pucks to the net a little bit more.
“I think a lot of times a shot on goal breaks coverage down better than any pass or play. Sometimes, instead of looking for that next pass I think we can look to put the puck to the net more and then go to the net. That’s the nature of playoff hockey. The teams that are left are very good defending teams. They make you work for your chances. And so sometimes the best play is putting the puck on the net and looking for those next play opportunities off of that rebound.”
Crosby and Malkin certainly expect more from themselves, but they aren’t getting discouraged.
“We know it’s a tough series, we’re playing against a good team,” Malkin said. “We play good at home, we won two games (against the Caps here) before. It’s our home. Just play the same. Just try to score a couple more goals, not just one. It’s not enough.”