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Pens players credit Sullivan for the job he's done

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

The Penguins currently rank fourth in the NHL with 25 wins and fifth (tied) with 57 points despite being decimated by injuries to key players, with Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel, Brian Dumoulin, Justin Schultz and Nick Bjustad all currently sidelined.

If you ask Mike Sullivan why the Penguins have had such success, he'll tell you that it's a players' game, that the players are the guys who get it done and this group of players here deserves a lot of credit.

But if you ask any of the said players, they all say Sullivan deserves a ton of credit as well - and that's why he's at the top of the conversation for the Jack Adams Award as the NHL's Coach of the Year.

"The way he's been handling this, with all the injuries, it's amazing the job he's done," defenseman Marcus Pettersson said. "He hasn't really talked about guys being out. Whoever's out there, we know we can play and we know we can win. He puts a lot of belief in us and confidence in ourselves that we can beat any team."

That belief and confidence starts with Sullivan himself.

When he first took over as head coach of the Penguins on Dec. 12, 2015, Sullivan said it was important for him to show a certain level of resolve and resilience because that was the very thing he was asking his players to do - particularly in a tough situation where the team dropped four straight games following the change.

He wanted to be a confident, calming influence while balancing that with challenging them to get better every day and focus on the details. Sullivan has stayed true to that in the three-plus years since, and because of that, the Penguins are finding a way to persevere and be the definition of resilience this year.

"I think he has such a strong presence," forward Bryan Rust said. "He demands your attention and he demands your respect with how he handles himself. He's got a big echoing voice that does the same thing. I think that just helps him take control of the room."

And when Sullivan does that, he delivers a clear message about how the Penguins need to play in order to win hockey games.

"I think you have to believe in something to actually make it successful," defenseman Kris Letang said. "His message has to be clear every time. We also have to believe in the message we receive. The message is making sure that we're committed and that we pay attention to every little detail. 

"Some guys, they're more creative out there. They want to play with the puck and sometimes you have to let them do it, but you can't let them do it all the time. I think that's the key to our success in the previous years and this year. The fact that we play the same way, we're committed - it works."

The devil truly is in every little detail for Sullivan, with the players all pointing out how well he and the rest of the coaching staff prepare them for games.

"The coaching staff has been doing a great job of preparing us to be good every night," Letang said. "It doesn't matter who is in our lineup."

And it's not just the preparation - it's also the passion. Sullivan's care level comes through whether he's talking strategy and X's and O's or simply talking to the referees.

"It starts with all the details they pay attention to with the video and the prescouts and things like that, but then you can see during meetings and stuff and throughout the game that he's just got so much energy and passion and enthusiasm," Rust said. "You can see him yelling back there sometimes (laughs), but that's all because he cares. That just helps the guys play a little bit harder."

Guys like Letang and Rust are used to that by now, but it's been eye-opening for newer Penguins like Dominik Kahun, in his first season playing under Sullivan.

"You can see how bad he wants to win," Kahun said. "Every game, even if we're winning 3-0 or 3-1 and we do one bad thing, he's not happy about it and lets you know. But that's how winning is done. I think that's positive."

That accountability is what also stands out to forward Jared McCann.

"He brings a mindset to our team that we've got to be on, all the time," he said. "In this league, you've got to be, right? With him having that, it really gets us engaged and he does a really good job for us, whether it's calling plays or changing the lines or something like that. He's honest, he's straightforward with the guys, he tells you how it is."

While Sullivan is demanding and honest, he's also an incredible motivator and can read people so well.

"He's taken time to get to know the guys," defenseman Jack Johnson said. "It can be just as simple as walking by asking how you're doing. That's the biggest thing that stands out to me. He's got a great feel for where the guys are at - whether they need to be pushed or need a day off, whether they need a kick in the (butt) or a hug. He's got a great feel for the pulse of the room."

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