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Players Recognize Sullivan for Becoming Penguins' Winningest Coach

They presented him with a plaque after he earned his 253rd victory, passing Dan Bylsma for the most in franchise history

by Michelle Crechiolo @PensInsideScoop / Penguins Team Reporter

Just play. Embrace the challenge. Dictate the terms. Love the compete. Controlled emotion.

Those are among the phrases Mike Sullivan has used with his teams since taking over as head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins on Dec. 12, 2015. 

They've helped him guide the Penguins to many victories, and with Saturday's 5-2 triumph over Chicago, Sullivan earned his 253rd behind Pittsburgh's bench - making him the winningest coach in franchise history, surpassing Dan Bylsma.

Tweet from @PenguinsPR: Tonight's win marks Mike Sullivan's 253rd behind the @penguins bench, making him the winningest coach in franchise history.Congrats, Sully! pic.twitter.com/aDmIFUIJ6W

Before Tuesday's game against Dallas, the players acknowledged the feat by presenting Sullivan with a framed plaque featuring the above-mentioned phrases to go along with the game puck from the weekend.

"I know you got the puck, but on behalf of the team, we wanted to give you a little something else," Letang said. "This plaque, to congratulate you on being the winningest coach in the history of the Penguins."

Letang also presented Sullivan with a gift from Penguins co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle: a cruise for Mike and his wife, Kate. 

"I don't know if you pick the destination," Letang shrugged with a grin as the rest of the players, management and hockey operations staff laughed and clapped.

Tweet from @penguins: The winningest coach in Pittsburgh Penguins history.Congratulations Coach Sullivan! pic.twitter.com/VROb6IZ3ep

That night, Sullivan told the group how much of a privilege it was to be their coach, which is something he reiterated to Penguins radio play-by-play announcer Josh Getzoff during the season's first episode of the Highmark Coach's Show this afternoon.

"The players were so gracious in acknowledging that milestone," Sullivan told Getzoff. "The way I look at it is when a team wins that amount of games under someone's watch, it's a collective effort from a lot of people."

Everyone from the coaches he's stood behind the bench with to the players themselves. Another line that Sullivan often uses is "hockey is a players' game," as he firmly believes that no one deserves more credit than them.

"I've been so fortunate my time here to have such a competitive group of players, and an elite group of players, that have accomplished so much in their time here in the NHL," Sullivan said. "So I've been a small part of that, but certainly, it's humbling to listen to people acknowledge the amount of wins that we've been able to incur here over the last handful years. Hopefully we get a lot more moving forward."

But if you ask the players themselves, they'll say that Sullivan deserves a ton of credit as well. The job Sullivan has done to steer this team through all of the adversity they've faced, from the moment he took over until now, particularly these last couple of years, has been nothing short of remarkable.

This is how the guys describe Sullivan: a strong presence who demands their attention and demands their respect with how he handles himself. He is passionate and prepared, delivering a clear message that they need to pay attention to the details and be committed to playing the right way. 

He is honest and straightforward, an incredible motivator who can read people. And he cares - about the Penguins, about his players, about winning hockey games.

That's why Sullivan was able to orchestrate such a turnaround after taking over midway through the 2015-16 season and leading the Penguins to back-to-back Stanley Cups. 

That's why he's gotten Pittsburgh off to such a strong start this season despite being without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and several other key players at different points. 

And that's why he'll hopefully steer the Penguins back to the promised land in the near future. 

"I've been associated with this league for a long time, both as a player and a coach, and that was an elusive goal that I hadn't been able to achieve," Sullivan said. "And so when we finally won in 2016 and 2017, and just reliving that experience in my mind, it's hard to put into words what that feeling's like. And I just think it makes you that much hungrier to want to do it again. I know the players feel the same way."

And while winning is the ultimate goal, Sullivan truly enjoys the daily endeavor of trying to help players improve in their own respective games while trying to help the team improve at the same time. It's what drives him to come to the rink every morning, which can certainly be a grind, but one that's so fulfilling.

"I just love hockey, you know?" Sullivan said. "I love the game. I love being around it. I love being part of a team environment. And I just love the whole process. I feel so fortunate to be able to go to work every day and do what I love to do. I don't even consider it a job, quite honestly. It's something that I've been doing my whole life and so for me, it's one of my life passions that I so enjoy. 

"And to have the opportunity to work with a group of players like we have here in Pittsburgh, I think just makes it that much more rewarding. To go through some of the ups and downs and the challenges that this league inevitably presents because it's so competitive, for me, is just a rewarding experience."

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