Kevin Gorman: With Steelers' season over, spotlight shines on Penguins
The season started slowly for their captain. They endured an uncommon losing streak that saw them slip out of the playoff picture. A former player created a stir by suggesting the coach’s message wasn’t getting through to two of the team’s high-profile players.
Sound like another season of Pittsburgh Steelers drama?
While the Steelers were dominating headlines amid a dysfunctional season, the Penguins were dealing with their own drama.
Sidney Crosby didn’t score through the first six games, and Evgeni Malkin was in a funk for most of November and December. The Penguins lost nine of 10 games from Oct. 30 through Nov. 19, slipping into a tie with New Jersey for last place in the Eastern Conference after blowing a three-goal lead in an overtime loss to Buffalo.
A funny thing happened after former Penguins winger Pascal Dupuis suggested some of their problems stemmed from a disconnect between Mike Sullivan and stars Malkin and Phil Kessel: The Penguins answered with an eight-game winning streak to move into second place in the Metropolitan Division.
That the Steelers’ struggles overshadowed their own played no role, as far as the Penguins are concerned.
“It doesn’t feel that way, so I’m not really concerned about what’s going on with other teams and how that affects us,” Crosby said. “I think there’s high expectations, regardless of how the Steelers are doing.”
Forget the false equivalencies. It’s Stanley Cup-or-bust for the Penguins, just like it is Super Bowl-or-bust for the Steelers. Both teams have had their share of distractions and drama. They just have different ways of dealing with them. The Penguins did their best to put to rest my theory they benefit from the intense scrutiny of the Steelers, escaping the spotlight until January.
“Every team is going to go through maybe some struggles throughout a season,” Penguins winger Jake Guentzel said. “The fans here are passionate in every sport we have. There’s going to be ups and downs, and fans aren’t going to be happy sometimes, but we’ve just got to stick with it and work to turn it around. …
“Maybe it’s magnified when the Steelers are done, but I think we’re just trying to do our thing and stick to our plan and just go from there.”
Truth is, the Penguins are placed under the NHL microscope in every city, as a team that won back-to-back Cup championships in 2016 and ’17. That’s especially true for Crosby, one of the game’s superstars and spokesmen.
“There’s plenty of attention on the Pittsburgh Penguins, wherever we go,” said Penguins defenseman Jack Johnson, who previously played for the L.A. Kings and Columbus Blue Jackets. “Just because the Steelers’ season ended, it’s not like all of a sudden people are paying attention to us. No matter what city you’re going to, the NFL is the most popular sport. I don’t think that’s exclusive to Pittsburgh.
“There’s a tremendous Penguins fan base here that I wasn’t even aware of coming in. Compared to other teams I’ve been on in the past, I’ve never been on a team that gets as much attention as this team does from Day 1. That’s been the most dramatic difference for me.”
Maybe not, but the Penguins are now the only pro show in town, even as they are about to leave town for a five-game road trip followed by a one-week break before the All-Star Game. They will have the undivided attention of Pittsburgh mainstream sports fans for the rest of the season, and the city is thirsting for another taste of the playoffs.
If that places pressure on the Penguins, well, they know how to handle it. They have learned to do something the Steelers have not, which is to not allow the distractions into their dressing room. The Steelers spent the season constantly answering questions about their drama, which only continued to create more.
“When you’re in this room the outside noise doesn’t really matter because none of us pay attention to it,” Johnson said. “We all know the things we have to work through and get better at, and we have to work through it as the season goes along. It’s a cool experience. I knew the guys that were the leaders in this room, and it’s everything I thought it would be as far as the way things are dealt with in this room.
“This group definitely didn’t feel sorry for themselves. If anything, this group got angry, got mad and had a definite reaction to the way things were going. We used our frustration and disappointment in a positive way. We didn’t let it consume us, didn’t let negativity creep into the room. We weren’t pointing fingers. It starts with the leaders in the room leading the way.”
That’s the secret to winning championships, something the Steelers should learn from the Penguins: Leadership starts at the top, allowing a talented team to overcome a slow start, a losing streak and any drama.
It’s not about where the spotlight shines.
A team with tunnel vision is difficult to distract.
Kevin Gorman is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @KGorman_Trib.