By Will Graves
AP Sports Writer
PITTSBURGH — Mike Sullivan’s tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins began with a 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Dec. 14 that seemed to offer little hint of the turnaround to come.
At the time the Penguins were adrift, buried in the Metropolitan Division standings and seemingly in real danger of missing the postseason for the first time in a decade.
Five months later they’re one round away from a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
The group that finished off a 4-3 victory over the Capitals in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday night hardly looks like the one that entered January in need of a serious wake up call. These Penguins have been soaring over the last two months and head into a showdown with Tampa Bay in the conference finals with some serious momentum after ruining another promising spring in Washington.
Count Capitals coach Barry Trotz among the converted.
“I thought they did a really terrific team down the stretch being the hottest team in the NHL and it carried over to the playoffs,” Trotz said. “I think they’ve got a shot at it.”
One the Penguins have earned by gravitating toward the blunt, driven and relentless Sullivan, promoted from the club’s AHL affiliate to replace the professorial Mike Johnston. Following those early struggles, Pittsburgh began “playing the right way,” a pet phrase Sullivan manages to sneak into nearly every one of his answers.
By Sullivan’s definition, that means turning every game into a track meet on skates and relying on a roster that has become far more than just stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The two franchise cornerstones combined for four points (one goal, three assists) against Washington and it didn’t matter. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel put up seven goals and 10 assists during six taut games against the Presidents’ Trophy winners, including Bonino’s tap-in from in front 6:32 into the extra period.
“It shows the depth of our team,” Bonino said. “We’ve had it all year. We’ve had not as (much) scoring from Sid and Geno but (other) lines chipping in at the right times to get the job done. That’s the playoffs.”
Of the 16 goals scored by the Penguins during the series, 14 were collected by players not on the roster when general manager Jim Rutherford took over in the summer of 2014. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray, who doesn’t turn 22 until later this month, is 7-2 since making his playoff debut in Game 3 of a first-round series against the New York Rangers.
Sullivan opted to stick with Murray over veteran Marc-Andre Fleury following a loss in Washington in Game 5 and Murray responded with 36 saves, including three in overtime that bought his teammates enough time to bury the winner after the Penguins blew a three-goal lead over the final 22 minutes of regulation.
“Giving up two goals in the third period is never what you want to happen,” Murray said. “I was so proud of how the entire (team) stuck with it. We never panicked and we dominated in overtime so that says a lot about us.”
The Lightning — who have been impressive in dispatching Detroit and the New York Islanders — await. Tampa Bay swept the season series from the Penguins, winning all three games by a combined score of 15-9. The last of those meetings came on Feb. 20, just before Pittsburgh put all the pieces together. The Penguins are 27-9 in the interim after beating Washington for the eighth time in nine playoff meetings.
“It’s a good team, a good series,” Malkin said. “Three overtimes. I like playing against Washington. It’s a tough team. We have more confidence right now.”
And the Penguins have their health, too. In 2011 they faced Tampa Bay in the opening round of the postseason without Crosby or Malkin, both out with injuries. Pittsburgh took a 3-1 lead in that series before everything crumbled. In many ways, that suddenly feels like long ago.
“It’s a bit of difference, right?” said Kessel, acquired last July from Toronto. “I’m happy to be here. We have a great group here. We’re going to just keep working.”