Sullivan pushing for speedier tempo, innovation at practice

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gives instructions during a timeout during the third period against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Penguins coach Mike Sullivan gives instructions during a timeout during the third period against the Maple Leafs on Wednesday, Dec. 30, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.
Photo by AP
Bill West
| Monday, Jan. 11, 2016, 9:42 p.m.

From the day of his introductory press conference Dec. 13, through the four-game losing streak that opened his tenure as the Penguins' coach, to the decisive post-New Year's wins over the Montreal Canadiens and the New York Islanders, Mike Sullivan framed almost all of his team's twists and turns within the context of what he continually described as a process of relearning how to use speed and skill.

“That has to be an element of our identity, as far as how we're going to play,” he said of speeed and skill at the press conference. “But for me, it doesn't stop there.”

One month into his time as coach, with the Penguins at 5-6-2 and still on the playoff picture's periphery under his watch, Sullivan sees no reason to stray from the process he initiated at his first practice.

Sullivan's reshaping effort, which began with new, up-tempo drills during his first day in charge, remains apparent as he prepared the Penguins for Tuesday's game against the Carolina Hurricanes. He unveiled drills during Monday's practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex that steered the players even deeper into their coach's speed-friendly, short pass-heavy style of play.

“We're trying to practice with pace,” Sullivan said. “We're trying to practice with tempo. I believe in order for us to play that way, we have to train that way. I think our pace is improving, and my hope is that it translates into the games.”

For weeks, after they finished routine line rushes to open practice, the Penguins proceeded to go through a zone-entry drill in which two players raced down a wing and exchanged the puck at the offensive blue line, just as a coach tried to poke the puck away.

On Monday, Sullivan introduced a new element to the zone-entry routine. He put the Penguins through a drill in which a forward received a long pass, carried the puck into the offensive zone and pulled up along the half wall to look for trailing teammates who rushed into the zone late.

“There's a fine line between repetition and monotony in our game, I think,” Sullivan said. “We try to keep it fresh. We try to force our players to think the game a little bit and engage their minds, so we try to throw some different things at them.”

Similar drills that encouraged end-to-end creativity and enterprising play followed. Most emphasized net-front skills and the ability to clear pucks crisply and under control from deep in the defensive zone.

“He's a big believer that to play at that (high) pace, you've got to practice at that pace,” center Sidney Crosby said.

To spend significant time at a practice jostling with a teammate in front of a net as a shooter blasts pucks from the blue line might sound risky, if not overly demanding to players accustomed to clean looks at the net and little physicality at practice. But the Penguins are willing to see what benefits they reap from the new and different exercises.

“To stay in those shot lanes as an offensive player at net front, it's crucial for pucks to go in,” defenseman Ian Cole said. “Obviously, (as a defenseman) you don't want to punch your teammates or give it to them, but guys do get fired up at practice. … No one is actually hitting hard, but if he thinks you did a little too much, they'll let you know.

“If you're not practicing that way, you're not going to be used to it come game time.”

Bill West is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at wwest@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BWest_Trib.

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