By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - The Pittsburgh Penguins started the season as a team without an identity and ended the campaign as Stanley Cup champions after a 4-2 series win over the San Jose Sharks in the NHL's best-of-seven final.
While the Penguins, who clinched their first Stanley Cup since 2009 on Sunday, can once again be called champions of the National Hockey League their identity is "speed."
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At the start of the season the Penguins, tipped as a Stanley Cup contender, ran more like a station wagon than a Ferrari as they sputtered through the first 28 games with a 15-10-3 record.
Head coach Mike Sullivan, brought in during a mid-season shakeup to replace Mike Johnson, harnessed that horsepower and put a gameplan in place to maximize that blazing speed.
Speed was always a part of the Penguins' genetic makeup with captain Sidney Crosby and puck-moving defenseman Kris Letang at the core.
However, general manager Jim Rutherford gave the Pittsburgh another gear by acquiring high-octane parts such as Phil Kessel in a trade with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Carl Hagelin, one of the fastest skaters in the NHL, from the Anaheim Ducks.
With Sullivan at the wheel of the high-performance lineup, the Penguins found themselves back on the road to the Stanley Cup playoffs culminating in Sunday's 3-1 Game Six win.
"The one thing we tried to do was create an identity and establish an identity," explained Sullivan. "I thought as the head coach, it was my responsibility to direct that.
"So we look at our personnel. When we looked at the type of players we have, our core guys, we think we've got players that want to play fast.
"They can all really skate, when you look at Crosby and (Evgeni) Malkin and Kessel and Letang, Hagelin we acquired down the stretch. Our core guys, they can all really skate. They want to come through the neutral zone with speed.
"We tried to implement a game plan that allowed them to play to their strengths."
The Penguins play at a breath-taking pace creating matchup problems for opposing teams.
Even the Sharks, a fast team in their own right, knew if they were to win their first Stanley Cup they would have to put the brakes on the Penguins with a punishing style of play.
Something they were unable to do.
"We felt as though, if we were a team that could play fast in every aspect of the game, that could be our competitive advantage on some of our opponents," said Sullivan. "I thought Jim Rutherford did a tremendous job in acquiring some guys along the way that enhanced that speed for us."
No player flourished more under Sullivan's change in tactics and philosophy than Crosby.
Off to one of the slowest starts in his 11-year NHL career Crosby had just five goals and 15 points in the first 23 games but finished the regular season third in the scoring race with 85 points.
He was not among the leading playoff scorers, finishing seventh with six goals and 19 points, but his leadership and all-round game was enough to earn the Canadian the Conn Smythe Trophy as the most valuable player of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
"Jim he had an idea of what he wanted us to play like, what he saw our team as, our identity, if we wanted to win," said Crosby. "He put the guys in place to be able to play that way.
"We didn't really waiver. Depending on who we played, you make little adjustments, but we didn't change our identity."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)