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Penguins prove resilient but rarely ready to score first

| Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, 10:18 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury plays against the Capitals on Monday, Dec. 14, 2015, at Consol Energy Center.

Resilience became an oft-discussed topic within the first few days of Mike Sullivan's tenure as Penguins coach.

Initially, he asked for more from his players.

Not long after New Year's, he began categorizing it as one of the Penguins' more prominent characteristics.

As his team approaches the All-Star break, Sullivan sees another “R” word — readiness — emerging as a subject in need of attention.

The Penguins, able to erase two-goal deficits to win their past two games, understand the risk inherent in relying on comebacks. They answered Sullivan's call for resilience but created questions about why they start first periods so poorly.

“I think we have to see it for what it is and be honest with ourselves and say we can't play that way and expect to get consistent results,” Sullivan said. “We've got to heed those lessons, and we've got to learn from that and make sure we're not chasing games.”

The woes predate Sullivan's replacement of Mike Johnston as coach Dec. 12.

Through 47 games, the Penguins' goal differentials in each period provide contrast. They're minus-14 in the first, plus-17 in the second and minus-1 in the third. Their 25 goals in the first frame ranked 27th in the league entering Sunday. Their 53 in the second ranked second.

There's likely little room for an early error in Tuesday's home game against New Jersey, the only team yet to lose in regulation when it scores first.

“We can't put ourselves in that hole,” winger Carl Hagelin said, “because all of a sudden, you play a team that's extremely stingy defensively, and we're not going to get the opportunities we got (Saturday in the 5-4 win over Vancouver).”

After each of the past few games came a familiar refrain from players.

“We've just got to figure it out,” goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said after the win over the Canucks. “We can't get ourselves a two-goal deficit every first period to make us go. It's great that we got two points (Saturday), but we've got to find ways to have a lead and play the right way right off the bat.”

Two nights earlier, the Penguins rallied from a 2-0 deficit to beat Philadelphia, 4-3.

“Our starts, we haven't been good for probably five, six games here,” winger Patric Hornqvist said that night. “That's something we really have to work on. If we're going to make the playoffs, we can't be that way.”

But what ails the team in the opening minutes remains murky.

Nothing will change in the way the Penguins go through their pregame routine, said Sullivan, who insisted slow starts are simply a matter of mental state.

“We've talked a lot since I've been here just about a mindset and about being ready to play,” he said.

Indeed, on the night Sullivan made his coaching debut, a 4-1 loss to Washington, he included the way the Penguins opened games as a point of emphasis.

“For me, that energy has to start well before the puck drops,” Sullivan said. “Part of it is our demeanor and how we go about our business on a daily basis. I want to create an environment here for these players where they're inspired to play, where they want to come to the rink, where they want to work hard.”

Playing tempo has risen under Sullivan, who's presided over five of the Penguins' six five-goal games but also five of the nine games in which an opponent scored four-plus this season.

Early deficits accompanied several of the high-scoring affairs, though. The Penguins allowed the first goal in 14 of their 19 games since Sullivan's arrival. Yet they're 8-7-4 in that span. The four overtime losses came in games in which the opponent scored first.

“I told the guys after the (Philadelphia) game it'd be nice to not have to come back from a two-goal lead and actually maybe get a two-goal lead, but certainly, the resolve that I think our team has displayed over the last couple of weeks …it's provided a lot of evidence that our guys can come back,” Sullivan said.

“I think it will serve us well moving forward because we can point to these experiences if and when we get in those situations.”

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

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