Kovacevic: Sullivan’s faith in power play rewarded


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Patric Hornqvist rams a rebound behind the Avalanche's Semyon Varlamov in the third period. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

Kris Letang insisted, passionately to the point of it being peculiar had it been anyone else, that he took nothing off that shot.

Which is fine. Let him think that.

Because what matters most to these Penguins right now, at least from this perspective, is that the power play stops being their primary liability. And the best way for that to happen, as Mike Sullivan eloquently explained to me Tuesday night after this striking 6-3 victory over the Avalanche at PPG Paints Arena, is to let everyone do what they do best.

Meaning the same five guys. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Phil Kessel, Patric Hornqvist and that one, same defenseman.

"You know, it's a tough call," Sullivan began his reply to my question about yet another short-handed goal allowed here, a remarkable fourth in nine games, an NHL-worst seventh on the season. "This power play, this group of five have been together for a long time. And they've been one of the top power plays in the league for three-plus years."

This is true, of course. In 2017-18, they converted at 26.2 percent, No. 1 in the league, No. 1 in franchise history and among the most proficient in hockey history if accounting for era differences.

"Their numbers were off the charts," Sullivan continued. "And we gave up three goals-against."

All season. Not in a week. This also is true.

"And the scheme hasn't changed. So, as a coaching staff, we walk that line. It's still early in the season. Do we still show faith in this group?"

Oh, they showed it, all right. And was it ever rewarded.

A 3-0 romp through one period turned into a tie the next on this latest short-handed goal, by Colorado's Matt Nieto at 13:17 of the second:

What would seem to stand out in this sequence, as has been the case on a couple of these shorties, is Letang getting his point shot blocked at the other end seven seconds earlier by fourth-liner Gabriel Bourque. And it might stand out all the more since Letang's taken criticism on this count for a long time, but especially of late, with some of that from inside the organization.

Not this time.

"I think there are times when we don't have a defensive conscience, and those goals can be avoided, so they're frustrating," Sullivan observed when I brought this up. "Take a look at the goal tonight ... Tanger takes a shot, hits the guy in the shinpads, and they get a fortuitous bounce that ends up in a two-on-one. Phil really tracks hard back to make it a two-on-two and, you know, it goes in the net."

Suffice it to say, Letang wasn't exactly eager to take more criticism on this front:

I can respect that. As he'd proceed to explain to me after that group interview was done -- he wasn't about to let it go -- there are real, live NHL players making really big NHL salaries to block those shots. He rattled off names, like the Lightning's Ryan Callahan, who excel at it. He rattled off recent instances, including glaring ones over the past week in both Winnipeg and Denver, where it might have looked like he erred.

He was adamant that wasn't the case.

"People seem to think I'm just shooting right into someone. I'm not. I'm trying to make the best play."

Which, again, is fine. Let him think that. Let him believe it to the depths of his soul. Let him even be right.

Because what matters most, to further repeat, is that the power play -- these four forwards, this one defenseman -- figure stuff out on their own. They're that skilled. They're that smart. They're that experienced.

That's why, when the Penguins got the first power play of the third period, in a setting where it could make the difference, for better or worse, Sullivan initially thought to a conversation he'd had during the preceding intermission with Mark Recchi, Jacques Martin and Sergei Gonchar ... then turned to his own old-school hunch mechanism.

"We talked about it between periods: Do we go with two defensemen here, just for a while to settle things down?" Sullivan recalled. "And when we got the power play, my gut instinct was to throw them back out there. Because ... well, when they're on, they're good. They're as good as any power play in the league."

He paused and gave me one of those trademark authoritative glares.

"And I believe in them. That's why I tend to stick with them. Because I believe in these guys. I believe that, when they play hard as a power-play unit, there's no better group in the league."

Here's guessing no one on the Colorado side would argue after what followed just 25 seconds later:


That was Kessel, the fourth forward who might have been benched for the still-mythical second defenseman, dishing back to Letang. And that was Letang -- whether he denies it or not -- picking his chin up, scoping the lane and spotting Patric Hornqvist in front, where he'd scoop up the rebound and bury it around Semyon Varlamov for the start of his supernatural hat trick.

"Yeah, that felt great," Hornqvist would acknowledge. "Our power play hasn't been good lately and ... and we just needed to simplify the game. We've been together for so long, and we know how to be successful: Just do what you're good at."

Right. Like getting the puck through traffic.

"I didn't do anything differently," Letang again insisted when I raised it one final time. "I just had a little more time, saw Horny there and shot it through."

Whatever works.

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