The Pittsburgh Penguins have played one game under their 22nd head coach in franchise history. New head coach Mike Sullivan’s first game was not pretty, but there were many positives to draw from it.
The Penguins lost 4-1 to the Washington Capitals, usually indicating a poor performance. All of the Capitals goals came on defensive breakdowns that stemmed from a lack of communication among the Penguins. These errors are the result of Sullivan’s changes in the way the team plays and nothing more.
Although the Penguins lost 4-1, they won the possession battle against the Capitals. Pittsburgh finished the game with a Corsi For of 64 versus the Capitals’ 37. They also led in shots on goal, with 37 making it to goaltender Braden Holtby. He turned away all but one deflection by Evgeni Malkin.
There was a visible difference in the system the Penguins were running, with star centers Sidney Crosby and Malkin not skating as deep in the defensive zone, while creating chances off the rush. Young forward Daniel Sprong was finally given a chance to showcase his talents beside Crosby, and he impressed with his offensive prowess.
Beyond the performance of individual players, the entire team played with an energy that was not present under Mike Johnston. They had a spark, the power play was shooting the puck and the lopsided score was the only part of the game to be in favor of the Capitals.
Coach Sullivan: "I thought we played with energy. I liked our aggression… We need to get the puck back when we're in the defensive zone."
— Pittsburgh Penguins (@penguins) December 15, 2015
Moving forward, the result of Sullivan’s first game will not matter. He took over the Penguins as head coach just a few days ago and had a single practice to work with the team on changing the way they played. As Sullivan gets more time with the Penguins, their play will improve, and it was unreasonable to expect them to dominate in their first game under a new coach.
One of the focal points of Sullivan’s game plan is to work on the execution of breakouts from the defensive zone and it was evident in their first game. He only had one practice to work with the team and this was the only topic they worked on. It may be a small change, but it was evident in the Penguins game that the defensemen were following his instructions and getting the puck to the forwards as quickly as possible.
“I think it’s important that that you try to come out of your zone as clean as you can and as efficient as you can,” said Mike Sullivan about the focus of their first practice. “Preferably, we’d like to come out with the puck. We’re going to try to implement some schemes to try to help us do that.”
There was a greater difference at this practice due to the attitude and demeanor Sullivan had on the ice with the team. Some players had compared Mike Johnston to a professor, where everything he said was always carefully planned out. But Sullivan has a completely different style.
“Coach Johnston is more of the professor type,” said Beau Bennett about the different coaching styles. “He thinks everything really through. A little more soft spoken. Coach Sullivan is like it is what it is. Very straight forward and deliberate. Two very different styles.”
Many Penguins fans will look to the last time Pittsburgh made a mid-season coaching change and will be expecting similar results. In the history of the NHL, only two mid-season head coaching changes have finished the season with Stanley Cup victories. The first was in the 1999-00 season when the New Jersey Devils fired Robbie Ftorek and brought in Larry Robinson, and the second was in the 2008-09 season when the Penguins fired Michel Therrrien and hired Dan Bylsma.
While in-season coaching changes generally have a positive impact, an improvement of .134 winning percentage since 2005-06, that’s a tall order for Sullivan.