Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sullivan making most of team’s practice days

Long layoff leaves coach more time to address details

- By Jason Mackey Jason Mackey: jmackey@post-gazette.com and Twitter @JMackeyPG.

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan walked past a youth hockey practice at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex Sunday afternoon, paused for a second while observing and smiled.

As happy — and effective — as Sullivan has been in his current role as a profession­al hockey coach, there’s also a part of him that loves teaching the game as much as anything.

With seven days off between the Eastern Conference quarterfin­als and semifinals, Sullivan will certainly get to scratch that itch.

“I do enjoy that part of our job,” Sullivan said. “We spend so much time trying to give these guys opportunit­ies to recover from the previous games, to have an opportunit­y like [Sunday], where we can actually have a substantiv­e practice and try to get better on the ice, work on certain aspects of our game, especially at this time of year, it doesn’t happen too often. We’re trying to take advantage of that opportunit­y.”

The Penguins received a similar break last year — five days after dispatchin­g the Rangers in five games.

Their first game back was an overtime loss in Washington, but it wasn’t exactly attributab­le to fatigue, boredom or poor practices.

Whoever the Penguins play in the next round, they’re trying to take practices Sunday and Monday seriously and get something out of them.

“It’s nice to get some practice,” Sullivan said. “It’s nice to kind go over little details, feel the puck, work on things. You don’t get that opportunit­y too often. If we manage it the right way, I think it’s something that could help us.”

Ruhwedel, Kunitz return

Sullivan could have a difficult lineup decision or two ahead of him in the next round.

Forward Chris Kunitz and defenseman Chad Ruhwedel joined the team for practice Sunday, albeit wearing yellow, non-contact jerseys.

Kunitz hasn’t played since March 31 because of a lower-body injury; Ruhwedel hasn’t since April 6 because of an upper-body injury.

“Anytime you think you’re going to miss games in the playoffs, you don’t know if you’re going to get another game in,” Kunitz said. “It’s tough watching playoff hockey. Fortunate for me, my team moved on. Gave me a chance to hopefully get back in the lineup.”

The semifinal-round series likely will start Thursday, either in Washington or at home against Toronto.

With another practice scheduled for Monday, it’s not unrealisti­c for the two to progress to the point of taking contact. If they react well enough coming out of Tuesday’s off-day, being a gametime decision by Game 1 should theoretica­lly be no problem.

“When Chad and Kuni are joining us in practice, they’re that much closer,” Sullivan said. “That’s really encouragin­g from our standpoint. They were obviously in a non-contact jersey today. We’ll see how they respond, and we’ll make our decisions accordingl­y on a daily basis.”

Kunitz took Phil Kessel’s spot — he got a maintenanc­e day — with Evgeni Malkin and Bryan Rust, while Ruhwedel skated on a fourth defense pairing next to Mark Streit.

Of the two, Kunitz is more likely to supplant someone who played against the Blue Jackets in the opening round, potentiall­y Carter Rowney or Scott Wilson.

“The off-ice conditioni­ng is something I worked at when I couldn’t skate,” Kunitz said. “Hopefully it’s not too far off. Playoff hockey is a different animal. You want to be prepared when you get back out there.”

How do you watch?

Nearly every player who spoke to the media Sunday admitted he’d watch Game 6 of Maple Leafs-Capitals wire-to-wire. If there’s a Game 7, they’d all watch that, too.

“Both teams look really good,” Crosby said. “It’s a really tight series, a bunch of overtime games.”

As for getting overly technical, they’ll leave that to the coaches, once everyone knows the outcome. Sullivan and his staff will do the same, knowing an intense pre-scout will occur once one team gets to four wins.

“As a hockey fan, it’s hard not to get wrapped up in it,” Sullivan said. “I do watch it as a fan from that standpoint. I also try to watch it with an analytical eye; we know that one of these guys is going to be our opponent. We’ll watch it more than once. We’ll watch it live in our living rooms tonight. Then we’ll watch it with much more scrutiny in our offices with the film.”

Sullivan said he has been breached by the NHL with a bunch of potential scenarios involving start dates and times. However, he cautioned that “nothing’s ever etched in stone.”

“When Chad and Kuni are joining us for practice, they’re that much closer.” — Mike Sullivan, Penguins coach

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