Surging Pens set for playoffs

Matt Cullen says the Penguins' turnaround started when Mike Sullivan was hired. (AP)

PITTSBURGH (AP) – Matt Cullen can’t quite find the right words to describe it. Maybe because the seemingly ageless Pittsburgh Penguins center has never experienced a season quite like this in a career that spans eight cities and nearly two decades.

Lifeless and listless in December, the Penguins enter the playoffs arguably the hottest team in the NHL, fueled by Sidney Crosby’s return to doing Sidney Crosby things. And by fresh legs from youngsters who seem to thrive off the pressure. And by a coach in Mike Sullivan whose arrival resonated in a dressing room adrift.

Maybe that’s where Cullen should start, with the man who took over for Mike Johnston on Dec. 12 and put his star-laden but underachieving group on notice.

“There was a renewed sense of competition for jobs, that can take your game up to another level,” Cullen said. “Guys were re-motivated to re-establish themselves with the new coach.”

Practices became energy-sapping endurance tests. Video work became teachable moments where mistakes were broken down and bluntly pointed out regardless of status.

“It doesn’t matter who it is, he is critiquing our play and expecting us to be consistent every night,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “It took a while. It’s not an overnight process. We had a lot of work to do.”

Yet the Penguins have done it, rocketing from the fringe of the playoff race on New Year’s Day to the runner-up spot in the Metropolitan Division behind a 14-2 surge to the finish. That sprint has improbably given them home-ice advantage in their first-round series against the New York Rangers when the best-of-seven matchup starts Wednesday.

Even more remarkable than what Pittsburgh has done while averaging four goals a game over the last month is who the Penguins have done it without. Evgeni Malkin skated before his teammates hit the ice Monday but remains out indefinitely with an upper-body injury suffered on March 11. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, whose steady hands kept the season from an all-out implosion last fall, is dealing with a concussion sustained two weeks ago. He practiced Monday and could return for Game 1.

A similar spate of injuries last spring sent Pittsburgh into a late tailspin. The Penguins needed to beat Buffalo on the final day of the season to get in the playoffs. They stuck around only long enough for the Rangers to escort them out after five taut but ultimately one-sided games.

Not this time. If anything, missing two key components of the team’s core seemed to galvanize the rest of the roster. Thank, in part, the habits ingrained by Sullivan, who stresses smart, aggressive decisions, and a series of moves by general manager Jim Rutherford that provided the Penguins with a needed jolt. Rutherford flipped plodding defenseman Rob Scuderi for smooth-skating Trevor Daley.

Forwards Tom Kuhnhackl, Bryan Rust, Conor Sheary and Oskar Sundqvist – all 24 or younger, all graduates of Sullivan’s time with Pittsburgh’s AHL affiliate in Wilkes-Barre/Scranton – played with an energy that negated their inexperience. Rookie goaltender Matt Murray took over for Fleury and looked just as home in the NHL as he did while setting the AHL record for shutouts last year.

The contributions from the non-bold-faced portions of the lineup have not gone unnoticed.

“Everybody has worked hard, no matter their role or what position they’re in,” Crosby said.

One of the NHL’s guiding lights came alive, too. The magic that largely disappeared during Crosby’s extended funk under Johnston has returned with a flourish. Mired outside the top-100 in scoring in December, he finished third with 85 points (36 goals and 49 assists) while offering a near nightly reminder that he’s not quite ready to fully cede his longtime spot as the game’s most electrifying player.

While his ability to create was never in question, his determination to get to the dirty areas in front of the net seemed to ease. Not so under Sullivan, who moved Crosby closer to the goal on the power play while also challenging him to set the tone by attacking with the kind of intelligent aggression that Sullivan calls “playing our game.” It’s a mantra the coach finds a way to sneak into nearly every answer about what has led to such an abrupt turnaround.

Look no further than Crosby’s overtime winner last week against Washington as proof. Defenseman Kris Letang, in the midst of the best hockey of his life, threaded a stretch pass between defenders to set up Crosby on the breakaway. A couple of dekes and one lofted backhand later, the Penguins were jumping over the bench to celebrate securing the No. 2 spot in the Met.

The victory served as the end of a long climb out of December’s depths while – they hope – setting the stage for better things to come.

“We don’t have to flip a switch,” Crosby said. “We all know the level is higher in the playoffs. We know we’ve been playing good hockey leading up to this and we just want it to continue.”