Kovacevic: Credit coaches for confusing Carolina


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Patric Hornqvist scores Sunday night at PPG Paints Arena. - MATT SUNDAY / DKPS

No one ever credits the coaches.

Not even the coaches will do that, come to think of it.

Well, on this wonderfully wintry Sunday at PPG Paints Arena, after the Penguins cut down the Hurricanes, 3-1, in an encounter that was every bit as critical as it was ... uh, catatonically dull ... I'm here to credit Mike Sullivan, Jacques Martin, Mark Recchi and the complete staff for sticking it to their Carolina counterparts with one sweet, subtle adjustment.

Blink and you'll miss it ...

Spot any commonality there?

If not, don't feel bad. I didn't pick up on it immediately, either. But eventually, it began to add up.

Those three sequences up there marked the first three times the Hurricanes dumped the puck deep into the Pittsburgh zone. In each event, including the couple where Matt Murray settles it, the first defenseman on the scene -- in order, Jack Johnson, Justin Schultz and Marcus Pettersson -- appears to be heading the way he's skating ... only to reverse the puck back from whence he came to a waiting partner.


Tip: Watch the white sweaters.

"They're a hard forechecking team, and we wanted to keep them guessing a little bit," Johnson explained to me afterward. "We thought we could open up some ice that way."

"They like to cut the rink in half," Pettersson would add at a nearby stall. "So we went to the other half."

It's as simple as that. The Hurricanes prefer to flood the attacking zone with pressure, just as they prefer to flood the goaltender with pucks, leading the NHL in shots per game at 32.5. So any team trying to break out of its end against that flood is begging for trouble.

As Matt Cullen brought up, unsolicited, "We came out of our end clean. That was a big part of our game tonight. Our D did a heck of a good job breaking the puck out so that we could spend less time in our end and get on the offense and play down in their end."

I'm not making a bigger deal of this than it is, I promise. Rather, it's to underscore a couple pretty prominent points:

1. Sullivan isn't shy about changing.

He's got that stubborn rep, sure, and there are times he's earned it, for better or worse. His system is his system, and there aren't many meaningful deviations. But he's also shown to be capable of applying the right wrinkle at the right time, particularly when the games are the biggest.

2. 'This was the biggest game of the season. By far.'

That was from Patric Hornqvist, beaming almost as brightly as when he scored his first even-strength goal since the eighth-century Viking conquests, captured in the Matt Sunday photo atop this column. And he was hardly wrong. Had the Penguins lost, they'd have put their very Stanley Cup playoff standing in peril, never mind falling into a wild card position and possibly facing the Lightning or Capitals in the first round. As it is, it's sure looking like the Islanders, maybe even with home ice.

So yeah, give it up for those who got it going.

Piecing together what I could, the process was set in motion Friday morning, less than 24 hours after the 3-1 loss to the Predators. That outcome and that opponent had no impact, though. This was all about the Hurricanes. This was akin to a playoff, as the coaches had been stressing to the players, and they were going to handle it that way themselves. From there, it was taken to the players before practice at the Lemieux Sports Complex, displayed on video and, ultimately, drilled out on the ice.

Who thought of it?

Eh, I tried, but neither the head coach nor one of his assistants would assign specific credit. They're like that. They stick together, and it's all a collective thing. Which is cool.

Me being me, though, I crossed over into Carolina territory to ask head coach Rod Brind'Amour how much it affected the Hurricanes.

"Well, they're good," he began before conceding, "They did some reverses. They did some things. But really, we were just slow to get going. Once we got going, I thought it was pretty good."

That's fair, but by then, it was 2-0 on twin strikes by the fourth line. And the Hurricanes were so thrown off for so long that their prodigious shot machine didn't register a single one in the second period until nearly halfway through.

That's the game right there.

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