Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Passing the Eye Test

Towards the end of the Mike Johnston era, almost all were unanimous that there needed to be a change.  From casual fans to national media, all knew that something wasn't right and watching the game told you most of what you needed to know.  For a greater impression, you needed to look no farther than Sidney Crosby.

Sidney Crosby was floundering.  At one point, the former MVP and Art Ross winner was ranked 111th in the NHL in scoring.  His effort was questioned, his game was picked apart, and his motivations pondered.  His lack of production, only occasionally showing the flashes that made him great, mirrored that of the Penguins themselves.

Lucky to beat out the worst teams in the league, only once in a while showing the ability to beat good teams, and happy to scrape out a point when down even one goal, the Penguins were lifeless.  Looking to be dead in the water, Mike Johnston constantly questioned, the team finally made a change.

Mike Sullivan takes charge
Come December 14th in comes Mike Sullivan, a no-nonsense coach who seemed to be the complete opposite of Johnston.  No longer soft spoken or seemingly blank on the bench, the Penguins had a motivator who understood how to use the talent given.  Adding in a big trade, one cheered about by and large, for Trevor Daley in exchange for whipping boy Rob Scuderi, that emphasized puck moving over "intangibles" and things began to change.

The new system, preached similarly by Sullivan in a previous stop in Boston, focused on putting the players in a position to succeed.  Sullivan wanted to let the stars run free and dictate the outcome of the game.  This was something that seemed to lack under Johnston.

Johnston played it safe, played it scared.  He seemed afraid to win games 6-5.  He seemed to think that curtailing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (who likely went rogue and ran his own system, though played exceptional defense) and making the entire team play a snooze inducing "safe mode" game that made each player focus solely on defense.

At first the Penguins floundered.  Losing their first four under Sullivan, they showed minor improvements in things like the break out and ideas on the power play.  It was a hellish four games in six days, not much time for a coach to drill the ideas he wants in to the minds of his players.

Sidney Crosby has come alive
under Mike Sullivan
Since finally having time to implement his ideas, the Penguins seem a different team.  Going 4-1-2 in that time, including an impressive come back from two goals down in last night's thrilling 3-2 OT loss to the Blackhawks, the Penguins have new life.

Outside of collecting points in six of seven games, their advanced stats numbers have improved.  For more on that, click on this great article by Jesse Marshall.  For improvement on a more basic, raw front, look no more than to Sidney Crosby.

Crosby, now 36th in the scoring race (up from 111th at an all time low), has eight points in seven games.  Four of those games are multi-point games.  Prior to Sullivan taking over, Crosby had five multi-point games.  Sidney Crosby is coming alive.

Much like Crosby, the Penguins have come alive.  If watching the game is your metric, not advanced stats as Jesse broke down earlier at The Pens Blog, then you're pleased.  The Penguins are exciting.  For the first time in near a year, they don't look like expansion era teams just trying to keep up.  For the first time in nearly a year, they look like they're having fun.  For the first time in nearly a year, Crosby, Malkin, and Kris Letang are free to play the game they're best at.

Penguins games are, once again, appointment viewing.  As Ryan Wilson stated in an article on last night's January 5th loss to the Blackhawks, "That was fun.  Let's do it again."

Penguins games are, once again, fun.  Win or lose, they are an event to look forward to.  Even the few that believed Mike Johnston got the shaft or needed more time must concede that the move to Sullivan was not only correct, but necessary.  Because by every metric, be it by stat or by eye, the Penguins are finally passing the test._________________________________________________________
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