COLUMN: When “Just Play” Becomes The Way

Three coaches are nominated for the Jack Adams Award every season. This year’s nominees are Mike Babcock of the Maple Leafs, Todd McLellan of the Oilers, and John Tortorella of the Blue Jackets. I will see your three my-team-sucked-last-year-and-I-turned-it-around coaches and raise you the guy in charge of the NHL’s best team, Mike Sullivan.

Like, really. Is Sullivan being exempt from the list some kind of sick cruel joke? I guess the same case could be made for Washington Capitals head coach Barry Trotz being left off the list, too. But what Sullivan can do to make a team missing it’s best defenseman and, not only the teams best forward, but the world’s best player is mind boggling.

The Penguins could’ve easily targeted the trash can defenseman that wears number 2 for the Washington Capitals, Matt Niskanen. But why waste your time throwing around something you already think is wasteful?

Revenge is a dish served cold. I don’t think there was anything colder than handing the Capitals their third loss of the series after yet another President’s Trophy and putting them on the brink of elimination for the second time in as many seasons.

Not only did Niskanen suffer yet another loss in the playoffs, something Capitals players and fans alike have gotten used to, he was a part of probably the meanest thing goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury has ever done.

After hearing about it from many players and fans, Fleury added the names of James Neal and Niskanen to the back of an already crowded helmet in sharpie. Before the game, he taped over the writing of Niskanen’s name in response to his highly controversial hit on Sidney Crosby. I’m positive you’ve seen it already, but you can’t really grasp the magnitude and savageness of the act until you’re staring at it. So for your viewing pleasure:

That’s all the revenge that the Pens attempted personally towards the former Penguin. They knew that winning is everything and the only thing. They sure taught the Capitals a lesson they have yet to learn in the Ovechkin era and thats how to win anything meaningful.

So what? One revengeful win makes Sullivan a shoe-in for the Jack Adams? No, but there is plenty more to talk about.

Not every team is blessed with a Kris Letang AND Sidney Crosby. That’s not to even mention Evgeni Malkin as the “third fiddle” if you will. When the aforementioned two aren’t playing in a game, specifically the playoffs, the Pens go from odds on favorites to “Welp, Caps in 5”. But this coach wouldn’t let that happen.

The Dan Bylsma‘s would’ve given guys like Carter Rowney and Matt Cullen 20 minutes a night. The Mike Johnston‘s would’ve plugged together some line combinations and wished upon a star hoping it worked harder than James Harrison in the offseason. Instead, Sullivan demands results. Sullivan demands integrity and grit and 110% effort on 150% of the plays. That’s where he’s different.

In a game where the lines looked like this…

Sullivan generated a lineup that scored three goals. Yes, they didn’t look great doing it. And yes, their starting goaltender had to do just about anything he could to win them the game.

Yes, that is Chris Kunitz on the first line. You don’t need your bifocals. I promise your eyes aren’t deceiving. And while Brian Dumoulin has been below average, Ian Cole is playing some of the best hockey of any defenseman in the playoffs still.

He laid the body continuously on the Capitals and made them ponder if they even wanted to stay on the ice.

That’s a hockey play, Trotz. Not slashing and tripping the NHL’s best player into a cross check from a former teammate who Crosby has never been all that fond of, anyway.

We watched this lineup get beat pretty badly by the Capitals yet again. The barrage didn’t stop. Their Stanley Cup winning goaltender helped lift them to another win to take it to 3-1, the “worst series lead in sports”.

As Sullivan’s “Just Play” message resonated through the Penguins’ player’s heads on a night when they could’ve targeted every culprit in the book, they didn’t. They played with class and integrity on the minds. They weren’t trying to tip the scales in their favor by taking out a very quality player on the Capitals roster where there is a lot of them. That I must admit. But in a world where the Capitals are to focused on “Sid-Nay”, the Penguins are thinking “just play”.

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