If the NHL regular season ended today, the Pittsburgh Penguins would not qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs.
That wouldn’t fly with their new no-nonsense head coach Mike Sullivan, who on Saturday was promoted from the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Penguins to replace Mike Johnston in Pittsburgh and will be behind the bench Monday night against the Capitals.
In fact, not much is going to fly with Sullivan, who has earned the reputation as a stern taskmaster in his career as a head coach in Boston and John Tortorella’s assistant coach in Tampa, New York and Vancouver.
Late in the 2012-13 season, after former Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik was placed on waivers by the Caps and claimed by the Rangers I remember Hamrlik telling me that playing for John Tortorella and Sullivan was like “being in prison.” Players who smiled on the ice were met by a glare by Sullivan, Hamrlik told me.
Maybe that’s what the Penguins think they need.
The last time the Caps and Penguins met on Oct. 28, Caps coach Barry Trotz said he understood Johnston’s challenge of getting his players to buy into the defensive style he was selling. When I mentioned those comments to Penguins captain Sidney Crosby he made it clear that “buying in” was not an issue for him or his teammates.
The Pens went on to win that game 3-1 in Washington, but their offense continued to struggle after that. Through their first 28 games the Penguins rank 26th in the NHL in goals per game (2.36) and 25th in goals allowed (2.32).
As coach of the AHL Penguins, Sullivan, 47, had an 18-5-0-0 record for the best winning percentage (.783) in the league, and his team had scored 85 goals, third most in the AHL.
Sullivan’s only NHL experience as a head coach came from 2003-06 when he coached the Bruins for two seasons. Boston finished first (41-19-15-7) in the Northeast Division that first season but were knocked out of the playoffs by the Canadiens in the first round.
Following the 2004-05 lockout, the Bruins went 29-37-16 under Sullivan and finished last in the division, prompting Sullivan’s dismissal following the 2005-06 season.
Since then, Sullivan has served as Tortorella’s assistant with the Lightning, Rangers and Canucks. He was hired by the Penguins to replace John Hynes after Hynes was hired to coach the New Jersey Devils.
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