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Mike Sullivan's tenure with the Pittsburgh Penguins began with a 4-1 loss to the Washington Capitals on Dec. 14 that seemed to offer little hint of the turnaround to come.
At the time the Penguins were adrift, buried in the Metropolitan Division standings and seemingly in real danger of missing the postseason for the first time in a decade.
Five months later they're one round away from a spot in the Stanley Cup finals.
The group that finished off a 4-3 victory over the Capitals in overtime of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference semifinals on Tuesday night hardly looks like the one that entered January in need of a serious wakeup call. These Penguins have been soaring over the last two months and head into a showdown with Tampa Bay in the conference finals with some serious momentum after ruining another promising spring in Washington.
Count Capitals coach Barry Trotz among the converted.
"I thought they did a really terrific team down the stretch being the hottest team in the NHL and it carried over to the playoffs," Trotz said. "I think they've got a shot at it."
One the Penguins have earned by gravitating toward the blunt, driven and relentless Sullivan, promoted from the club's AHL affiliate to replace the professorial Mike Johnston. Following those early struggles, Pittsburgh began "playing the right way," a pet phrase Sullivan manages to sneak into nearly every one of his answers.
By Sullivan's definition, that means turning every game into a track meet on skates and relying on a roster that has become far more than just stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The two franchise cornerstones combined for four points (one goal, three assists) against Washington and it didn't matter. The line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel put up seven goals and 10 assists during six taut games against the Presidents' Trophy winners, including Bonino's tap-in from in front 6:32 into the extra period.