Penguins still fine-tuning identity as season hits stretch drive |

Penguins still fine-tuning identity as season hits stretch drive

Jonathan Bombulie
Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, left rear, talks with referee Brian Pochmara (16) with assistant coach Mark Recchi listening during the first period of an NHL hockey game against the Philadelphia Flyers in Pittsburgh, Saturday, Dec. 1, 2018.

After the Pittsburgh Penguins dropped a 7-3 decision to the Vegas Golden Knights last Saturday to kick off a weeklong midseason break on an inglorious note, coach Mike Sullivan had some interesting things to say.

“We have to find a way to become a team,” Sullivan said, “that has a clear identity of what it is and how we’re going to play.”

Wait a minute. The Penguins are 48 games into the season and they don’t have a clear identity?

Isn’t it the same identity the team has had since the day in 1984 when Eddie Johnston stepped up to a microphone and announced the Penguins were drafting number “soixante six?”

They’re the team that wins because they’re better at scoring goals than the other guys, right?

Well, no, but that’s not because the Penguins are confused or because Sullivan wants his team to turn its back on its offensive roots.

It’s because of the way he defines the word, “identity.”

It’s not a slogan that would fit on a bumper sticker. It’s a comprehensive description of the way he feels his team needs to play to be successful. And it’s a recipe that still needs some work.

“When we go in to play and opponent and (their) coaching staff has a meeting and they say, ‘Hey guys, we’re playing the Penguins tonight and this is what they’re about,’ if 30 other teams are saying the same thing, then you’ve established yourself,” Sullivan said. “We’ve got to make sure that occurs.”

As the Penguins wrapped up their bye week and officially began the season’s stretch run with a Sunday afternoon practice in Cranberry, they sit fourth in the Metropolitan Division with a 26-16-6 record.

They’re only two points behind second-place Washington and five points behind the first-place Islanders in the Metropolitan Division race, but they’re also only four points ahead of Buffalo and Carolina, who would like to push them out of the eight-team Eastern Conference playoff picture.

They’re coming off an uninspiring 2-3-0 western road trip with five of their next six games being played at home.

They’re fifth in the league in scoring, but 15th in defense.

There are 34 games left. In a lot of ways, their season is at a crossroads.

“If we would have finished stronger, we’d be in a better position, but you are where you are,” center Matt Cullen said. “We’re in a very reasonable position as far as everything’s in our reach if we play the way we can. That’s the outlook that we have. Our best hockey, we believe, is in front of is. It’s there for the taking. It’s up to us to play our game.”

And Sullivan is very clear about what he wants that game to look like, picking out two areas in particular after Sunday’s practice.

First and foremost, he wants to see his team making better decisions with the puck. He also wants to see his team winning more one-on-one battles.

“It’s about getting your nose over the puck and being more determined than the guy beside you,” Sullivan said. “I think that’s a mindset, that’s a commitment level, that winning teams have regardless of the sport.”

The way Sullivan sees it, it’s not about Xs and Os or any acquisitions general manager Jim Rutherford might or might not make before the Feb. 25 trade deadline.

It’s about discipline.

To be contenders, the Penguins need to establish an identity based on discipline.

“We’ve shown an ability to do it at times, and when we do, we get results, but we get away from it,” Sullivan said. “I think it’s a discipline of mind, a discipline of spirit, that we have to acquire in order to become the team that inevitably we think we’re capable of becoming.”

Follow the Pittsburgh Penguins all season long.

Jonathan Bombulie is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Jonathan at [email protected] or via Twitter @BombulieTrib.