TAMPA — Mike Sullivan was making a point Tuesday morning about the Pittsburgh Penguins and how they will have to play without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin when the coach reflected on a question he fielded earlier in the week.
“With some of the players we have out of the lineup are we going to change the way we play?” Sullivan said, repeating the question. “For me, I don’t think we have to change our identity as far as what we are and how we can play to our strengths and have success. I think when we have players of the caliber of players that are out of our lineup, we’ve got to make sure that we’re just more disciplined and more diligent in every aspect of the game.
“It starts with managing the puck, the play between the blue lines, which sets up so much of the game. We can have an aggressive mindset and do it collectively as a group and not be a high-risk hockey team.”
The Penguins clearly got the same message from their coach, because it’s hard to imagine them playing any more diligent, disciplined, harder or smarter than they did in a 6-2 win against the Tampa Bay Lightning at Amalie Arena on Tuesday.
Frankly, it’s hard to imagine them playing a better game period without Crosby, Malkin and left wing Jake Guentzel, let alone one against a Lightning team that has won back-to-back Stanley Cup championships and raised their 2021 Stanley Cup championship banner prior to the opening face-off.
“It’s a big win for us,” Sullivan said after the game. “Obviously, that’s a really good team we’re playing against. It’s a real emotional night for them. It’s one of those games that can go either way. I thought we came out with a lot of energy. I thought we played the game that we’re trying to play. We were doing everything in fives in all three zones and that’s when our team is at its best. Our best defense takes place 150, 160 feet away from our net with our puck pursuit game, and I thought our guys did a real good job tonight.”
Crosby (recovering from wrist surgery) and Guentzel (recovering from COVID-19) were in the building and skated in the morning. Both could be back soon. Malkin is out at least the first two months of the season recovering from knee surgery he had in June.
The Penguins’ performance without them had a prove-something feel to it, as in don’t sleep on us because we’re still a championship quality team too.
They had six goal-scorers and 12 skaters with at least one point. Goalie Tristan Jarry made 26 saves in what Sullivan called “a big win for him.”
“It’s a first step,” forward Danton Heinen said. “It’s a good first step, for sure. We all know who is out of the lineup and I think everybody has to pick up their game a little and take a little more weight. It’s a good opportunity for some guys. It’s definitely a good first step.”
The Penguins were outshooting the Lightning 25-15 and won 24 of 40 face-offs (60 percent) through two periods. They led 2-0, with each goal coming in the second period from newcomers to the lineup; Heinen scored at 12 seconds and forward Brian Boyle, who signed a one-year contract Tuesday, at 4:11.
“We all felt very prepared for this,” forward Dominik Simon said. “We knew what to do on the ice and just had to execute and do it the right way. We did that.”
They did it by playing aggressive, on their toes and with an in-your-face forecheck, but also while eliminating risk from their game.
The Lightning couldn’t get anything going because the Penguins wouldn’t let them. They certainly weren’t giving them any freebies.
“I thought the first two periods we were playing what we envision to be Penguins hockey,” Sullivan said. “I think sometimes you can misconstrue aggression with high-risk and we don’t see it that way. We can play a calculated game, a conscientious game, and still play on our toes and be aggressive. I thought that’s what we did for the first two periods.”
The third period was more of a mish-mosh, but the Penguins still built a 3-0 lead on Simon’s goal at 11:32. Then there were five goals scored while Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on the bench for the extra attacker; three by Pittsburgh, two by Tampa Bay.
None mattered. The Penguins had already put on the performance they knew would be worth two points. They played exactly how Sullivan detailed they needed to play when he met the media in the morning.
“I’m certainly proud of them,” Sullivan said. “I thought our guys competed really hard. They deserve a lot of credit.”
Crosby and Guentzel will be back, perhaps as early as Pittsburgh’s home-opener against the Chicago Blackhawks at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday. But the Penguins can’t change their identity or how they play just because they’ll have a more talented lineup to put on the ice.
Penguins hockey this season has to be gritty, hard, very rarely pretty. That’s how they’ll reach the postseason for a 16th consecutive season, with more efforts like they had Tuesday.
“I think our guys embrace it,” Sullivan said. “I think they like to play the game that we’re trying to play. And I also think it plays to our strengths.”