Penguins rookie coach Mike Sullivan was living out a Kafka-esque nightmare Tuesday in Pittsburgh. A period away from closing out the NHL's best regular season team, his squad took three straight delay of game penalties for firing the puck over the glass. None of the network broadcasters had ever seen anything like it. The resulting manpower became 5 on 4, then 5 on 3, then 5 on 4, and then 5 on 3. When the ice chips settled, the powerhouse Capitals had tied the game at three, sending it to overtime.
Remarkably, Sullivan appeared calm throughout his tumultuous journey to Bizzaro-world. His face was only one shade closer to red as he sought an explanation from the refs after the third straight delay of game call. "I've never seen it in all the years I've been around the game, I'll tell you that," said Sullivan to NHL.com in the post-game. "Three delay of game penalties in a row like that. That's a tough one to swallow, you know?" Sullivan's college coach, B.U. legend Jack Parker, knows Sullivan well and was one of the few that detected the immense stress his protege was under.
"When he had is arms folded in front of him, look how hard he was grabbing his stomach," said Parker. "It was like he was in a straight jacket."
Sullivan and the Pens weathered the unprecedented storm, ("It could have been a lot worse," said Parker), got to overtime and then overwhelmed the Caps with a non-stop flurry in the extra session. Former Terrier Nick Bonino was the man of the late-hour, pounding in the series-winner to catapult the Cinderella Penguins into the conference final. Kudos are in order for Sullivan for standing firm when America's top hockey pundits were loudly questioning his tactics.
In the third period prior to the delay of game triple nightmare, Pierre McGuire, a single stride from Sullivan inside the glass, wondered aloud when Sullivan would rein in his run-and-gun Pens, and collapse back into a defensive shell. He asked Sully point blank whether he was worried about all the odd-man rushes against during his in-game interview spot. Sullivan said his troops just needed to make better decisions with the puck. He would not take his foot off the gas.
|McGuire and Milbury, From the Gallery|
|Parker: "It's real easy to coach someone else's team."|
Sullivan has a history of facing down neighsayers. B.U. national championship hockey alum Todd Johnson recalls another bizzare Sullivan anecdote when he was in his original NHL coaching job with the Bruins. "During the lockout (2005), Mike coached a local pee wee team," said Johnson.
"He did all the right things, taught them all the game, shared ice time equally. You'd think the parents would be honored that a former NHL player and the coach of the Bruins was coaching their kids. Well what did they do? The parents had a big meeting and protested that their kids weren't getting enough ice time. What a joke, unbelievable."
After being confronted by passionate youth hockey parents, the slings and arrows from television talking heads is pretty routine for Sullivan. His triumph over both the bizarre circumstances in the series clincher and the NBC neigh-sayers brings to mind the Rudyard Kipling classic Poem "IF."
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
—you’ll be a Man, my son.
One of the biggest stories heading into the NHL's final four is the courageous leadership of Mike Sullivan. A man, indeed.