Pittsburgh scores finest report within the league for March | Information, sports activities, jobs

PITTSBURGH – Mike Sullivan spent a decade in the NHL carving out a niche as a defense-focused striker who was more concerned with blocking shots than hitting them.

He wasn’t the fastest, not the strongest, and he knew it. He survived eleven seasons by playing with a sense of responsibility that verged on obsession.

Almost 20 years after his last game on the ice, Sullivan’s ethos continues. The quickest route to the heart of the Pittsburgh coach (and the playing time that comes with it) isn’t a blinding end-to-end rush, but rather timely clarity. Or a back check that thwarts a scoring chance. Or always being in the right place at the right time.

Maybe that’s why he’s so excited about his team’s development this season. Pittsburgh put together the best March in the NHL, although more and more high-profile players were making the list of injured. The entire second line (Evgeni Malkin, Kasperi Kapanen and Jason Zucker) and most of the third line (Brandon Tanev and Teddy Blueger) ran off the ice and out of sight for a long time.

Still, the Penguins used a 12-3-1 sprint to finish second with the Islanders behind Washington in the relentlessly competitive East Division. While the top line anchored by Sidney Crosby has carried much of the goal load – Crosby, Bryan Rust and Jake Guentzel scored 22 goals and 29 assists in March – they have been backed by a sensible style of play that has often been made Pittsburgh bigger than the sum of its available parts.

“We have people who I feel like sometimes get hurt every night and we have the next man’s attitude. Striker or defender, we have everything under control, ”said striker Jared McCann, who scored the final winning goal in Monday’s 2-1 win over the islanders. “We come in, do simple things and we have the skill on this team that will take over.”

The list of unavailable players grew earlier this week when goalkeeper Tristan Jarry, who regained his all-star form from last season, was eliminated after the first stage against the Islanders with an upper body injury that Sullivan called “day for Day ”. ”

No problem. Casey DeSmith came in and stopped 19 of 20 shots when the Penguins grabbed a 4-0-1 homestand.

The final minutes were a clinic defending a lead. DeSmith made two saves as the islanders let the penguins stuck deep, the second a stop on Scott Mayfield with 3:19 to go. The islanders never gave DeSmith a puck again. Crosby and Mark Jankowski both blocked shots, and the Penguins won each of the last four encounters to effectively stay away.

“It’s fun to train these guys and watch them play,” said Sullivan. “I think our game has a certain simplicity at the moment that makes it difficult for us to play against it.”

The goal will be to keep that simplicity once the bold names find their way back into the lineup. Zucker nearly scored on his return from an 18-game absence on Monday. Tanev and Blueger are practicing while Malkin and Kapanen have not yet started skating, although both are expected to be available in the playoffs.

The penguins are completely healthy and are among the most explosive teams in the league. It’s not always a good thing. Pittsburgh saw a similar period of solid play in the first half of last season when Malkin and Crosby both missed a month or more. They played more conservatively because they had no choice.

However, one strange thing happened when Pittsburgh recovered: casualties piled up. The penguins dropped eight out of eleven before the COVID-19 shutdown. Then they were stunned in the qualifying round of the playoffs in four Montreal games.

Letting your most talented players be themselves while asking them to play all 200 feet of ice is a fight Sullivan has been fighting since he took over in December 2015. This run includes the Stanley Cups in 2016 and 2017.

“As a coach and as a coaching staff, I’ve always been convinced that we don’t want to take the sticks out of our players’ hands,” said Sullivan. “We want to allow them and give them the leeway to act on their instincts. In many cases, this is what sets some of our players apart from others in the league and that is what makes them what they are. We just have to get it right and make sure we manage the puck appropriately so that we’re a tough team to play against. I think if we do that we’ll be a competitive ice hockey team. “

The penguins were fast, grainy, opportunistic, and largely risk averse during their cup wins. Not so much during the last playoff flameouts.

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