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Sullivan preaches playing it ‘right’

PITTSBURGH — The message is more than six years old at this point. And no less vital.

From the day he took the Pittsburgh Penguins head coaching job in December 2015, Mike Sullivan has known he’s in charge of a uniquely talented group, one that can sometimes fall in love with its own considerable ability.

The trick for Sullivan is to make sure Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and company can consistently decipher the difference between dazzling and dumb. It’s why the energy with which he delivers his personal mantra — “play the right way” — has rarely waned.

It was there on Sunday in the aftermath of a 3-2 win over Winnipeg that boosted the Penguins to a remarkable 26-10-5 mark at the season’s halfway point, good enough for second in the hotly contested Metropolitan Division.

Sure, Sullivan’s team had recovered from a two-goal, third-period deficit to pull off its fifth straight win. Sure, All-Star goaltender Tristan Jarry turned aside 27 shots, including a handful of odd-man rushes in the first two periods as the Jets successfully lured the Penguins into a track meet. Sure, Crosby’s deft flick of the wrist in the shootout pushed Pittsburgh’s record to 16-2-0 in its last 18 games.

Still, a message needed to be sent. Too often of late the old habits — the ones Sullivan has been trying to rid his team of since the day he took the job — have crept in. The risky pass. The lackadaisical backchecking. The temptation to provide the spectacular play instead of the simple one.

So while Sullivan is pleased with the way his team has competed during an eventful first half in which Crosby missed a month, Malkin missed three and COVID-19 made its way through a considerable portion of the dressing room, he made a point to reiterate the process is sometimes more important than the result.

Asked if the dip in attention to detail of late — even among all the wins — is the mere byproduct of a heavy workload and the malaise that can set in during the middle of a six-month grind, Sullivan politely bristled.

“We’re not looking for excuses,” he said. “We’re trying to achieve excellence every day. Our expectation is high in that room.”