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Sidney Crosby, Penguins finally find championship identity

PITTSBURGH – It was December. Mike Sullivan walked into the room for the first time as Pittsburgh Penguins head coach and looked at the team he had inherited near the midseason. 

Sidney Crosby. Evgeni Malkin. Phil Kessel. Kris Letang. The elite of the elite.

So he acknowledged to the group that the Penguins, in fact, had great players. The challenge was to stop being a team with great players, and become a great team.

“If we can do that,” he said, “that’s how you win in this League.”

The Penguins were already wise to this philosophy. Along with ungodly standards of excellence, it was the driving force behind the firing of GM Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma in the Great Purge of 2014. The former lost his job because the roster lacked the quality depth to augment the great players. The latter lost his job because management felt his coaching system wasn’t suited to win in the playoffs.

Mike Johnston was also brought in to turn great players into a great team, except his idea for doing so was to suck the fun out of the great players like some kind of monotonous vampire. His system managed to neuter the brilliant offense of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang. That he ended up getting less out of the Penguins than Bylsma did was downright embarrassing for GM Jim Rutherford and the revamped management group that cast their lot, for whatever reason, with an NHL newbie.

So they made the decision to fire him and promote Sullivan from the American Hockey League, and this ended up being really smart for several reasons. The first is that the high-tempo, attacking style of hockey he had the Penguins playing was the antithesis of the vacuous system they were stuck in. Sid found his smile. Letang was dominant again. Suddenly, Rutherford was taking an active role in matching players to that system, swapping out David Perron and Rob Scuderi for Carl Hagelin and Trevor Daley, for example.

The other reason Sullivan’s hiring was advantageous was that he was familiar with many of the depth players who would, in fact, help turn the Penguins into a great team.

Bryan Rust, the blazing fast rookie forward that scored three goals in Games 6 and 7 to lead the Penguins to the conference championship. Conor Sheary, the tenacious rookie speedster that ended up seeing time with Crosby. And, of course, goalie Matt Murray, the blue-chip prospect who rescued the Penguins in the first round and now sits four wins away from joining the likes of Ken Dryden and Cam Ward as rookie netminders who backstopped their teams to the Stanley Cup.

His faith in the young players was rewarded. His veteran players’ faith in Sullivan was as well.

"I think, to their credit, they have become a team in the true sense of the word,” said Sullivan. “It starts with our leadership. It starts with our captain, with Sid, but it doesn't stop there.”

But it does start there.

***

Sidney Crosby has played 417 regular season and 68 playoff games since winning the Stanley Cup as a 21-year-old star in 2009. During that span, he’s suffered career-threatening injuries; he’s suffered several postseason disappointments; and, lately, he’s suffered the slings and arrows of critics that have been giving him the Ovechkin Treatment insofar as his presumed inability to will his team to victory on his own.

Crosby ended up with five points in seven games against the Tampa Bay Lightning, including the game-winning goals in three of their four victories. He didn’t have a point in Game 7, but that’s besides the point: In a game during with the Penguins dominated in puck possession, no line affected that more than Crosby’s.

What the Penguins are now are the team fans have wished would surround Crosby, Malkin and Letang for years. They win with total team efforts, rather than waiting for a star turn. Everybody in the locker room grabs the same oars to row the boat, no matter their experience levels or cap hit; and the boat can glide on without those stars as outboard motors.

Sidney Crosby played a marvelous Game 7. Bryan Rust (!) provided the Penguins offensive while Crosby went scoreless. Matt Murray turned back key shots in the third period. Everyone contributed. And the Penguins advance. 

In the seven years since he hoisted the Stanley Cup, Crosby claims pessimism never set in about his chances on ever getting back to the Final, which starts on Monday vs. the San Jose Sharks.

“As far as the guys that have been here for a while, I think we've always believed in one another,” he said. “Just trying to get back is not easy.”

It’s not, and Crosby’s seen that firsthand. But this year was different. This team was different. The depth, the speed, the system, the tenacity, the total buy-in from the players – these haven’t always been hallmarks of previous teams for Crosby, but they define the Penguins now.

“I thought tonight might have been the most complete 60-minute effort that we've had,” said Sullivan. “We've talked all year long about an identity and a certain way to play that gives us a chance to win.”

The Penguins are now four wins away from winning it all.

“We know the biggest challenge is ahead of us here, but we've got a great opportunity,” said Crosby. “Like you said, it wasn't easy getting to this point. So it would be great to finish off the right way.”

--

Greg Wyshynski is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Contact him at puckdaddyblog@yahoo.com or find him on Twitter. His book, TAKE YOUR EYE OFF THE PUCK, is available on Amazon and wherever books are sold.

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