Gorman: It's your move, Sully
They swore it wasn't about them, going to great lengths to put the onus on the players and even refusing to talk about one another and their history or call their coaching challenge a chess match.
But now it is.
The Columbus Blue Jackets answered the Penguins on Tuesday, thanks to John Tortorella's tactical edge.
In 48 hours, the Columbus coach brought the Blue Jackets back from the brink of elimination after the devastation of Sunday's Game 3 overtime defeat to the thrill of victory in Game 4, their first regulation playoff win and second at Nationwide Arena.
“He gives us confidence to play our game and to work hard,” Blue Jackets winger Cam Atkinson said of Tortorella. “That's what we talked about: Last game, it could have gone either way in overtime, but we stuck with it. We didn't make excuses. We came in and expected to win again and got a different result.”
Your move, Mike Sullivan.
The Penguins coach outclassed Tortorella through the first three games, not just strategically but in convincing his players to push through slow starts and ride the momentum swings to three consecutive victories.
The message has been simple: Just play.
Sullivan has convinced the reigning Stanley Cup champion that its best bet of a repeat rests with valuing the little things, whether it's winning a puck battle on the boards or clearing it out of their zone. The little things, he says, add up to big things.
“Talent alone doesn't win in the playoffs, or it doesn't win at this time of year,” Sullivan said. “You've got to play the game the right way. There's only one way to play this game, and that's hard. You can't win if you don't play hard.
“Part of that is defending when the time is called upon. It's getting in shot lanes. It's being willing to engage in puck battles. It's getting involved in wall play. It's a lot of those thankless jobs that are difficult to quantify — that you guys maybe can't go to a website and look up a stat — but they're vitally important to helping teams win hockey games.”
Sullivan has pushed the right buttons so far. More than anything, he has made sure his message resonates in the dressing room, whether it's through his own voice or that of captain Sidney Crosby.
“Sully's a great coach. He's a guy who's very intense, and he expects a lot from you. But because he expects a lot from you, he gets a lot from you,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “So not only the tactics and strategy part of things but the desperation he tries to instill and the intensity that he brings out in his players. That's something that's very good for our team.
“We have all the aspects, but adding that edge of intensity and that edge of desperation and everything, it brings our game to another level. When you have a captain like Sid that encompasses all of those things, it really kind of reinforces that message. We're fortunate to not have a leadership group that's combating the coach's message, which sometimes happens. We have leadership that has bought in and leads us from the front.”
Tortorella, however, made some minor changes to his lineup for Game 4 that brought major returns.
Not that anyone actually expected a sweep, but the Penguins can't afford to allow the Blue Jackets back into this series.
They know it's important to finish them off Thursday, when the series returns to PPG Paints Arena for Game 5, to make sure there is no return trip to Columbus.
“My experience in going through these things is every game is its own entity,” Sullivan said. “We've got to go home and win a hockey game. That's got to be our approach. We've got a confident group. We believe in this group. We know we're a good hockey team. When we play the game the right way, we can compete with anybody. We've got to reset our mindset. But we've got to be more committed to playing the game the right way.”
Torts won the tactical battle Tuesday. Now, Sully gets his strategic turn. Don't be surprised if his message stays the same, that he chooses to call on the Penguins for more consistency in this chess match.
Sometimes, the best move isn't making one.