CRANBERRY, Pa. — While TV ratings for Sunday’s Super Bowl snooze-fest were at a 10-year low, at least one person loved watching every minute of it: Mike Sullivan. Go figure.
Not just because the Massachusetts native’s Patriots won their sixth Lombardi either. As a coach, albeit in a different sport, he thoroughly enjoyed the defensive chess match that played out in Atlanta.
“They both showed so much resolve and discipline and not making the big mistake and taking what your opponent gives you,” Sullivan was saying after Monday’s practice at the Lemieux Complex. “It’s not unlike winning a hockey game 1-0 or 2-1. I think we can all learn something from that.”
Apparently, he’d like his defense corps to heed that message. Earlier Monday, Sullivan stopped practice to admonish his blueliners during 5v5 drills.
“That’s what happened the last three games!” he could be heard yelling. He then punctuated that with one word that sounded a lot like “puck!” Spoiler alert: It wasn’t “puck.”
As practice concluded, Sullivan then gathered his defense corps around him for a few minutes where he had another heated discussion. It was as animated as Sullivan has been this season during practice, though his players assure me they’ve seen and heard worse behind closed doors. The cause of Sullivan’s consternation was repeated bad breakout passes.
“I just want us to execute better,” he explained. “I have higher expectations of our guys. They’re good players. I think sometime we want hope to be part of our strategy and that’s what I told them. If we have got to hope to connect on a pass, then we’re better off not making the pass. Sometime the best play is no play and keeping the puck in the safer part of the ice and not trying to do something that puts us in vulnerable positions. We were doing a lot of hoping in that particular drill and that was the message.”
The good news for Sullivan is that some help is on the way.
Justin Schultz has been cleared for contact and was a full participant in Monday’s hour-long practice. Though Schultz says he won’t play tomorrow night when the Penguins host the surging Carolina Hurricanes, it could come as soon as this week.
“It was a good step today,” he said. “We’ll see how it feels tomorrow morning, but everything felt fine.”
Whenever Schultz does return, it’ll present Sullivan with an intriguing dilemma. The Penguins will have eight healthy defensemen, but only six will play.
Sullivan is fond of saying that no lineup decisions are “etched in stone.” But it’s fairly safe to assume that the pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin, one of the NHL’s finest, will remain intact.
During Monday’s practice, Schultz skated with both Olli Maatta and seventh defenseman/regular scratch Chad Ruhwedel at 5v5.
Schultz also split reps with Marcus Pettersson on the second power play unit:
Sullivan said that reuniting Schultz with Maatta is “certainly a possibility,” but added, “we’ve talked about a number of different combinations here moving forward. We’ll see when we have the full complement of defensemen.”
The third pairing of Jack Johnson with Pettersson helped stabilize the Penguins during their 11-3-1 run in December but have been inconsistent of late. Since the start of their western road trip on Jan. 11, the Penguins have gone 4-5, including Saturday night’s 3-2 loss in Toronto. Though the pairing of Pettersson-Johnson has a respectable 50.21 Corsi For percentage at 5v5 during that nine-game span, they’ve been on the ice for nine goals against, compared to just three for.
“I think I started off, when I came here, really good and I think I kind of wanted myself to take the next step,” Pettersson was telling me Monday. “Obviously the first little while, the first couple weeks, I didn’t really expect too much and I allowed myself to get into it and get a grab of the system here.
“I wanted myself to take the next step and I haven’t really gotten there yet. I think it’s steady, not overly bad. Just find some more consistency and I’ll be fine.”
Whether Sullivan sticks with Pettersson-Johnson as his third pairing will be interesting. He does have options, including Juuso Riikola.
Schultz’s return will give the Penguins a second right-handed shot to go along with Letang. Johnson and Riikola, both left-handed shots, have been playing on the right side.
“There’s pros and cons to it,” said Johnson, who was the Penguins’ biggest acquisition in free agency last summer. “Getting pucks out of your own end is probably a little bit easier on your strong side. When you get pucks up the board in the offensive zone you can one-time them on net and don’t have to stop it. But there’s pros and cons to both.”
While Schultz was injured, the Penguins put on a brave face regarding their left-heavy defense corps saying that it was no big deal. While anyone can play on their off-hand, Sullivan allowed on Monday that “it’s beneficial” to have defensemen play on their strong side. With the speed of today’s NHL where every millisecond matters and every inch of ice is contested, it’s becoming more of a necessity than a luxury to have a left-right pairing.
“It makes the pace a little easier, a little bit more efficient,” he said. “When you add a right-handed shot like Schultzie, now you’re adding a guy that has offensive instincts that’s a really good puck mover and can help us with our transition game and so many different capacities.”
Theoretically, the Penguins defense corps could look like:
Or remain as is:
• Although Schultz is back, the Penguins aren’t completely healthy. After missing last weekend’s back-to-back games against the Senators and at the Maple Leafs with an upper body injury, Evgeni Malkin is still not practicing. He did skate earlier Monday with skills development coach Ty Henne. Zach Aston-Reese, out since suffering a hand injury Jan. 8, also skated.
• Monday’s practice was the first for Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann, who were acquired Friday for Derick Brassard and Riley Sheahan. Bjugstad said he has no preference whether he plays center or right wing. He’s been at center — his natural position — but he could be moved when Malkin returns.
“We’ve talked about a number of different combinations,” Sullivan said. “Sometimes when you put it down on paper or we do it in our coaches room, how you think something’s going to play out and how it actually plays out are two different things.”
The Penguins helped integrate the newcomers by having them watch the Super Bowl at a team get-together.
• McCann not only inherited Brassard’s position (third-line center) and his number (19), he’s got the same locker stall at the Lemieux Complex. McCann joked that he brought “too many shorts” with him from Florida, but he added that he also picked up his work ethic from former Panthers teammate Jaromir Jagr.
• The Penguins will hold their morning skate at 10:30 a.m. tomorrow at PPG Paints Arena before their game against the Hurricanes.
• Here were Monday’s lines and pairs with Bryan Rust reunited on the top line with Sidney Crosby and Dominik Simon moving down to the third line: