When the horn sounded off at 9:47 p.m., the Pittsburgh Penguins walked off the ice of Consol Energy Center with their 22nd win of the season.
But this one was a little extra sweet.
The 4-3 win came against the Philadelphia Flyers, who not only serve as Pittsburgh’s archrival, but have also been the Penguins’ recent bully. Pittsburgh had lost to Philadelphia eight straight times. It had been 826 days since the Penguins last beat the Flyers.
"It feels like we don’t (win) enough…or at all," Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury said with a chuckle following the divisional win. "It was a good feeling though, especially when we didn’t start the way we wanted to, and we showed some character and came back in the game. It’s a good feeling to win that game and beat them."
Those good feelings have been a bit more plentiful for the Penguins recently. In the young calendar year of 2016, the Penguins have already compiled three come-from-behind victories, and they have slowly crept up the standings, gaining on those in the Metropolitan Division over the last couple of months.
While the turnaround hasn’t been incredibly dramatic, there is evidence that the change of direction happened almost instantaneously with a single move: The hiring of Mike Sullivan as the head coach.
Sullivan, who was hired as the Penguins head coach following the firing of Mike Johnston on Dec. 12, has found something that works. In the 18 games that Sullivan has coached, Pittsburgh has only managed to record a 7-7-4 record. But the way that the Penguins are playing should help Pittsburgh generate some points in the long run.
If we take a look at how many shot attempts the Penguins recorded at even strength 5-v-5 from the beginning of the season to Dec. 12 in comparison to Dec. 13 to the win against the Flyers, the difference is night and day. The Penguins are taking far more shot attempts than they are surrendering, they are averaging more shots per 60 minutes of play, they are creating more scoring chances, and they are starting the vast majority of their shifts in the offensive zone.
The Penguins under Mike Johnston vs. under Mike Sullivan (at even strength 5-v-5)
Category (Per 60 Minutes)
Under Mike Johnston
Under Mike Sullivan
Shot Attempts For
Shot Attempts Against
Shot Attempts Percentage
Scoring Chance For
Offensive Zone Start Percentage
So why is all of that stuff important? When we see the Penguins under Sullivan, they are taking 8.7 more shots per 60 minutes of even strength 5-v-5 play than they were under Johnston. That increase in shot attempts will generally create more scoring chances, and as we can see from the chart, the Penguins are generating 6.5 more scoring chances per 60 minutes of even strength 5-v-5 play. And we can see that the Penguins also allowing significantly less offensive opportunities for their opponents under Sullivan than they were under Johnston.
And those numbers under Sullivan aren’t insignificant. Since Johnston’s hiring, no team has a higher shot attempt percentage at even strength 5-v-5 than the Penguins.
Offensively, the Penguins are clearly generating more opportunities for themselves, which should result in more goals.
The problem is, the uptick in offensive opportunities isn’t resulting in more goals. Despite more scoring opportunities, the Penguins are averaging 1.9 goals per 60 minutes of even strength 5-v-5 play under Sullivan. That’s the exact same amount as they were averaging under Johnston.
So what gives?
The Penguins team shooting percentage is shockingly low. At even strength 5-v-5, the Penguins have only scored on 5.4 percent of the shots they have taken. Under Johnston, they scored on 6.3 percent of their shots.
That team shooting percentage is bound to go up. According to Sporting Charts, the NHL’s average team shooting percentage this year is 8.76 percent. The Penguins have been scoring on just 7.54 percent of their shots. That’s the third-lowest team shooting percentage in the NHL.
When you add a team’s shooting percentage with a team’s save percentage, you get what is called PDO. PDO is generally used to measure a team’s overall luck, and it’s a good indicator on how you can tell if a team is going through a slump or a hot streak. PDO’s always tend to hover around 100 over the course of a season, but they fluctuate from time to time. Under Sullivan, Pittsburgh’s PDO is at 98.2, anchored down by a low team shooting percentage. But when that number gradually rises to 100, the Penguins should start to see better results.
It’s evident that their current plan is working, both at a team level and at an individual level. Since Sullivan’s arrival, Sidney Crosby has scored 20 points in 17 games. He had 19 points in 28 games under Johnston. Kris Letang has scored 16 points in 11 games under Sullivan. With Johnston, Letang had 14 points in 25 games. Phil Kessel has 12 points in 18 games under Sullivan. Under Johnston, Kessel scored 17 points in 28 games. With those kinds of increases, wins will eventually begin to stack. The Penguins just need to be patient.
"You’ve got to go one game at a time," Crosby said earlier this week. "For us, it’s just a matter of finding our consistency. I think when we have that, the wins will kind of take care of themselves. The results will take care of themselves. Just putting three periods together, and try to do that consistently, I think we give ourselves a pretty good chance."
And in addition to those new systems Sullivan is implementing, the Penguins have gotten new additions that have contributed right away. Just two days after the Sullivan hiring, the Penguins sent defenseman Rob Scuderi to the Chicago Blackhawks in exchange for defenseman Trevor Daley. Daley is a totally different player type from Scuderi, and he better fits the Penguins’ overall style. He’s a puck mover that can help contribute offensively on the third pairing. He’s added four goals and two assists in his 17 games with the Penguins.
Another significant addition to the Penguins came just last week. Well past midnight on Jan. 16, the Penguins sent forward David Perron and defenseman Adam Clendening to the Anaheim Ducks for forward Carl Hagelin. Hagelin is a speedy playmaking winger and, much like Daley, is an ideal fit for the Penguins’ system, one that he was able to gel into relatively quickly. Sullivan served as Hagelin’s assistant coach for four seasons when both were members of the New York Rangers.
"The guys did a really good job in the first two games helping me out," Hagelin said earlier this week. "I have had Sully before, so I kind of know what the strategies are out there and the game plan. It’s a familiar voice, and that definitely helps."
Hagelin was immediately penciled in as the second line left wing, flanking Evgeni Malkin and Kessel. Hagelin’s speed and finesse should work out tremendously well for Kessel, who hasn’t been exactly what the Penguins had expected this season. But in the game against the Flyers, Kessel scored two goals, including one off of a primary assist from his brand-new linemate.
"I just tapped them in, right?" Kessel said with a smile on his two goals after the game. "I’ve missed a couple like that this year. It was nice to get them to go in the net."
Patience, Phil. Those shots will eventually start going in the net. Your new system is working, and the team’s collective luck is bound to change.
The Penguins are doing something right under Sullivan. And as the new additions grow more and more comfortable with their new team, and the players get more and more comfortable with their brand new style of play, the wins will start coming. They just need to play this hockey throughout the remainder of the season, and they should be in a pretty good spot come April.