The fifth time was the charm for the Pittsburgh Penguins under new coach Mike Sullivan as they finally broke out of their scoring slump and beat the Columbus Blue Jackets 5-2. The win snapped a 5 game losing streak that predated Sullivan's time on the bench and gave him his first victory as the Pens head coach. While the team is now 1-4-0 under Sullivan and have been outscored 17-9, the limited sample size shows some reasons for optimism, all while being without his top defender in Kris Letang, having his franchise goalie in Fleury for just a single game while suffering the effects of a concussion, and losing Beau Bennett during his first game while he had been playing with the 1st line. Sullivan has the team playing much better from a possession standpoint, the defense has been tested less as a result of keeping the puck at the other end of the ice, and despite an offensive that has remained ice cold up until last night's game the team has been better positioned to win as a result.
*The following stats, unless noted otherwise, are all score-adjusted
The Penguins under Mike Johnston were not a good possession team, having posted a 48.3 CF% at even strength through 28 games. The attempt to mask a poor defense by playing in a defensive shell was a failure, and it certainly didn't play to the strengths of his roster. If not for the outstanding play of Marc-Andre Fleury, the Penguins could have been in a much worse spot than where they were when Jim Rutherford had finally seen enough to make a change.
So far under Sullivan, the Pens have managed to drive possession much better than they were under Johnston with a 56.7 CF% in those five games. They've been noticeably better at creating chances as well, as they've had 58.6% of the scoring chances at even strength in that time frame compared to 49.2% under Johnston. The same holds true for high danger chances as well, as the team has 57.9% of the high danger scoring chances under Sullivan vs 49.7% under Johnston.
|Comparison of CF% under Mike Johnston and Mike Sullivan|
Shot Attempts Against
Breaking down possession a bit further shows how much of a failure Johnston's strategic adjustments this season were. The Penguins were an awful team with respect to suppressing scoring chances at 27th in the league with a 55.7 CA60 at the time of Johnston's firing. Since taking over, Sullivan has the team allowing just 47.2 CA60, which is a massive difference. Not allowing the opposition to attempt shots prevents them from having a chance to score goals, just as possessing the puck doesn't allow the opposition to attempt shots. The best way to hide a bad defense is by being able to keep the puck in the opposition's zone, and that especially makes sense with a forward group like the one the Penguins have and a goaltender who, when healthy, can help cover when the puck goes the other way from being too aggressive.
|Comparison of CA60 under Mike Johnston and Mike Sullivan|
While it's still early in the process, the indications are that Mike Sullivan is going to be able to better position this team for success. The underlying numbers will likely come back to the pack as more games are played and a more representative sample size is established, but the result will still likely be a much more aggressive team that is focusing their efforts on creating goals for instead of attempting to prevent goals against. The team will get a boost as Letang, Fleury, and Bennett return to the lineup, and potential trade acquisitions could further reinforce the team's weaknesses. While Trevor Daley's defensive liabilities are well known, he's shown mobility and offensive skills that have been missing from the team this year, not to mention missing from the player he's replaced. Regardless of any future moves made, Sullivan will coach the team in a way that allows the roster as constructed in the offseason to be accurately assessed and play up to its potential instead of playing under the restrictive strategic adjustments that caused virtually every player on the roster to under perform.