Mike Sullivan had a lot to think about during his five-hour drive to Pittsburgh.
It was Saturday, Dec. 12, and his life was about to change dramatically.
Sullivan, who was the head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the American Hockey League, had been preparing a video meeting for his team’s game that evening against Albany when he received a call from general manager Jim Rutherford.
Rutherford offered him the job of head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
“The question I asked myself when I first took the team over is how do I have an immediate impact,” Sullivan said. “Usually when a coaching change is made, it’s because expectations aren’t met and it’s a difficult circumstance. So that can be a hard environment for players to perform.”
Pittsburgh underachieved through the opening months of the season. While they had a 15-10-3 record, their offense and compete level was lacking. A team stacked with offensive talent – Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Phil Kessel – ranked 27th in the league in offense, while the power play was tied for 26th.
Sullivan’s job was clear: make the underachieving Pens fulfill their potential. To do that, he wanted them to play a certain way and mold an identity built on certain characteristics: speed; compete; resilience.
“I don’t believe that a team identity evolves. I think we steer it,” Sullivan said. “It’s my responsibility as the head coach to make sure that I do that.
“When our opponents have a meeting to prepare to play the Penguins, what are they saying about this group? If 29 teams are saying the same thing, then we have accomplished creating an identity.”
Sullivan knew that it would take time to build that identity. He preached to his players not to focus on the result, but focus on the process. It took some time, but the Pens are finally starting to fulfill that identity.
“I tried to shift that focus away from dwelling on their circumstance and focus it on just trying to get better every day,” Sullivan said. “Focus on the process and own your own game. Take ownership for your work habits.”
Pittsburgh is 15-6-5 in its last 26 games and since Dec. 21, the Pens have the fourth-best offense in the NHL with 3.15 goals per game and a power play that's tied for fourth, connecting at a 23.5 percent rate.
The Pens’ star players have bought into Sullivan’s approach and they’re being rewarded. Crosby has posted 19 goals and 37 points since the coaching change. He had six goals and 19 points prior. Defenseman Kris Letang has eight goals and 31 points under Sullivan. He posted only one goal and 14 points before the change.
More important has been the team’s success. The Pens have climbed back into the playoff mix. They have a three-point lead on the New Jersey Devils for the final Wild Card spot with two games in hand and are just one point behind the New York Islanders for third place in the Metro Division.
The three key ingredients to the Pens’ turnaround as been those staples of their new identity. Speed. Compete. Resiliency.
“We’re a very different team today than we were then,” Sullivan said. “Our mindset has changed. We’ve evolved.”
SPEED The Pens were already a team blessed with team speed. But it would take a tactical twist to bring it out of them.
Sullivan believed that the key to tapping into the team’s speed would come from their own zone. So it is no surprise that in Sullivan’s first practice that the emphasis was on breakouts.
“I think it’s vitally important to team success, the ability to come out of your end zone efficiently and effectively, preferably with the puck,” Sullivan said. “I think it helps us establish a speed game through the neutral zone. Team speed is one of our competitive advantages. So we’re trying to play a style of play that leverages that speed.”
The problem for the Pens early on was their lack of practice time. During Sullivan’s first three weeks on the job the team played nine games, while only holding three practices. The circumstances were the result of a lot of games scheduled and the Christmas break.
“The challenging part was that we didn’t have a lot of practice time,” Sullivan said. “It was very difficult as far as trying to make subtle adjustments with some tactical things we were doing.”
Sullivan used his little practice time to set the tone. The team uses high intensity practices with tempo. Sullivan wants to the team to practice the way it plays: with speed.
And that has trickled down through the team.
“We have incredibly high-paced practices,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “Our meetings are very thorough. Our video is very thorough. I think that level of attention to detail has translated into our game on the ice.”
COMPETE LEVEL The biggest change in the Pens is visible through the eye test. It’s in their effort and compete level on the ice.
On that Saturday afternoon that Sullivan was offered the head coaching job, general manager Jim Rutherford stood before the media and said the Pens made a coaching change because the team had “more to give” and needed to have "more will to win.”
In fact, a team’s compete level is really the difference-maker in a team’s success.
“I’ve always been a strong believer in the mindset in sports and that a lot of games are actually won or lost before you step onto the ice,” Sullivan said. “As coaches, we like to talk strategy, style of play and X’s and O’s. But the root of the game is still based on emotion, passion and energy. It’s that human element, that competitive spirit for me that’s the difference between wining and losing.”
The Pens certainly worked hard before the coaching change. But Sullivan has challenged them to take that effort up to an even higher level. And the players have answered the challenge.
“I think he’s brought a different level of accountability and expectation,” veteran forward Matt Cullen said. “And I think the guys are really responded under him.”
RESILIENCY Sullivan’s biggest challenge was turning the Pens into a resilient group. He wanted them to be unwavering in their effort and focus no matter what adversity came their way.
And Sullivan set the tone from the start.
“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.”
In the previous 110 games before Sullivan’s arrival, the Pens had won just one game in which they trailed in the third period.
Already under Sullivan, the Pens have orchestrated two third-period comebacks (one in which they scored two goals in the final six minutes of the third period against Atlantic Division-leading Florida).
The Pens have also responded to many other challenges along the way: *Trailed Detroit 2-0 before winning 5-2 on New Year’s Eve *Trailed Philadelphia 2-0 before winning 4-3 *Trailed Vancouver 3-1 in third period before winning 5-4 *Trailed Florida 2-0 with 6 minutes left in third period before winning 3-2 in OT
Even more impressive is that many of those wins have come with three of their centers out of the lineup, including two-time NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin and a bottom-6 that is comprised of all players that began the season in the American Hockey League.
Under Sullivan, the Pens shouldn’t be discounted in any game -- no matter the score, the situation or the opponent. While the improvements are welcome, the team still has a long way to go to accomplish its ultimate goal.
But Sullivan has no doubt in what the outcome will be.
“The challenge is to take a group of great players and become a great team,” Sullivan said. “I was excited about this opportunity, but I also brought an inner confidence that I believe that I’m capable of the challenge.”