As Doc Emrick boasted soon after the Pittsburgh Penguins survived the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final, two U.S.-born coaches will meet in the Stanley Cup Final for the very first time.
While novel, it in no way reflects the experience and overall expertise of Mike Sullivan and Peter Laviolette — two leading hockey minds each with sights transfixed on a second ring.
We could bestow Sullivan with flowery praise or just present facts — either will do when assessing the remarkable job he’s done with the Penguins since taking over for Mike Johnston a year and a half ago, and almost a decade after his last NHL head coaching stint.
The Penguins are an exceptional 83-37-16 with a league-best 453 goals (to 363 against) in regular-season competition under Sullivan. In the playoffs, they own a 7-0 series record with 131 goals scored in 43 games.
Not once has Sullivan made a significant miscalculation, instead he continues to push all the right buttons for teams he rescued from its doldrums. He transformed the Penguins into a fast-paced, possession-savvy, attacking juggernaut last season. This year he’s overcome myriad injuries as the Penguins battle attrition right along with their opponents, and are now one series away from becoming the first repeat champions in 19 years.
Sullivan’s biggest decision in the immediate postseason run came after Game 3 versus Ottawa when they blitzed Marc-Andre Fleury. Trailing for the first time in the playoffs, Sullivan turned back to Matt Murray — now healthy after being injured prior to puck drop in the opening round — despite Fleury being arguably Pittsburgh’s most valuable (and always most popular) player to that point.
Sure enough, Murray answered 123 of the 130 shots he faced versus the Senators in four-plus games, finishing the razor-close series with an indispensable .946 save percentage.
Laviolette has reached the pinnacle, too, in a head coaching career now spanning 15 uninterrupted seasons with four different franchises. He won the Stanley Cup with the Carolina Hurricanes in 2006 and returned to the final four years later with the Philadelphia Flyers.
Laviolette became the second American coach to win 500 games earlier this year and the fourth coach in history to guide three different teams to a Stanley Cup Final as the Predators completed a 12-4 run through the Western Conference bracket.
In all three seasons in Nashville, he’s guided them incrementally further in the postseason despite entering as lower seeds in each. This spring, with P.K. Subban completing the most talented defense in the NHL and goaltender Pekka Rinne at the top of his game, the Predators breezed to the final with a plus-18 goal differential.
Like Sullivan, Laviolette deserves credit for modernizing the system he inherited. His predecessor, Barry Trotz, achieved a certain standard and overall stability with a successful, but ultimately safe and somewhat limited product.
Predators general manager David Poile has made masterful adjustments to cater to Laviolette’s vision of high pace and quick counters by designing a mobile and facilitating blue line, and investing in and developing high-skill burners up front.
We’re now seeing the fruits of this transformation.
ADVANTAGE: Push. Not sure that anyone could say with certainty that one coach has the advantage over the other in the 2017 Stanley Cup Final. These are two talented tacticians about to battle it out right along with the players, and winning may come down to which best manages the players that remain at their disposals.
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