PHILADELPHIA – One win away from their first Stanley Cup final berth in 16 years, the Pittsburgh Penguins are far removed from Michel Therrien’s famous tirade just two and a half seasons ago.
“I think we’ve come a ways,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said Wednesday. On the night of Jan. 10, 2006, after a 3-1 home loss to the Edmonton Oilers, Pittsburgh’s eighth defeat in 11 games since Therrien took over behind the bench, the former Montreal Canadiens head coach exploded.
It was crushing but also calculated.
“It’s a pathetic performance,” Therrien said in a post-game clip that ran all over North American television for days and weeks. “Half of the team doesn’t care. That defensive squad – I am really starting to believe their goal is to be the worst defensive squad in the league. They are doing such a great job to be the worst defensive squad in the league. They turn the puck over. They have no vision. They are soft. I have never seen a bunch of defencemen as soft as this.”
He later added: “We should take 50 per cent of their salaries because they play only 50 per cent of the time.”
His message was heard loud and clear.
“I was a little embarrassed,” defenceman Ryan Whitney said Wednesday after practice. “I was a rookie and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to hear about this one from my buddies.’ He let us have it, he obviously wasn’t happy. I’ll never forget that.”
Whitney, Sergei Gonchar and Rob Scuderi were on the ice that night. Brooks Orpik was on the team but didn’t play. Today they’re four of Pittsburgh’s six blue-liners that have helped the club to the NHL’s top defensive record in the playoffs and on the verge of a Cup final berth. They lead the Philadelphia Flyers 3-0 with a chance to sweep Thursday night in Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET).
“From that night until today, I think we’ve done a pretty good job of becoming a good defensive team,” said Whitney. “And that includes the forwards, everyone playing as five-man units.”
Therrien at first chuckled Wednesday when asked to revisit his emotional rant. But clearly, he doesn’t regret it.
“Well, when I came to Pittsburgh, the team was in last place,” said Therrien. “And there was no commitment at all. When you’re in last place, there is a reason. … And if you want to have some success, we had to change everything, the attitude, work ethic and commitment, because we were going the wrong way. Pretty simple.”
At first he was Mr. Nice Guy after taking over the job in December 2005. But enough was enough after the 11th game.
“After a month, it was the same result,” said Therrien. “So how long was I going to wait? And I decided to be tough the hard way and it’s never fun. It’s not fun when you have to break down the mentality of a team. But look at where we are right now, and we’re pleased that we did it that way.
“We tried to change the mentality of everyone, because to be a winner, it’s tough. It’s demanding to be winners. I believe right now we’re starting to be recognized as winners.”
Therrien doesn’t often get mentioned in the same breath as other top coaches in the NHL and that’s probably a mistake. He’s been able to convince a team of young stars that playing defence matters. That’s no easy task.
“We got a team that people probably don’t give much credit to the coach because of the stars we have,” said Whitney. “You got Crosby, Hossa, Malkin, Gonchar, Sykora, the list goes on and on. So you think, ‘Anyone can coach them.’ But it takes a certain person to keep us all in line. …
“He’s done a good job of coming in here and changing the atmosphere and the whole culture we had two years ago. We had become too used to losing and accepting it. He’s never accepted losing.”
And his players gradually bought in. Today they’re one of the best defensive teams in the NHL despite their embarrassment of riches on offence.
“I think we all look back (at the tirade),” said Crosby. “He was obviously emotional, but what he was saying wasn’t necessarily off. I mean, we weren’t strong in that area. If we wanted to be a good team, that’s definitely something we had to improve on, and it needed to be everyone. It wasn’t specifically defencemen or forwards or goaltending, it was everybody.
“I think we all realized pretty early when he came in that we all had to buy into the team defence. You know, we realized, especially through the playoffs, that that’s been a big part of our success.”
The funny thing is, the Penguins got clobbered 6-1 at Columbus the very next night after his rant. Did he wonder if his tirade had backfired?
“Sometimes you can’t judge a team with results,” said Therrien. “The next game, they looked like a team. They looked like they cared. And even if we lost that game, it took us some time to get results, but that was the little light at the end of the tunnel.
“I started to see it that day, the very next game. They showed a little bit more character during that game, and, honestly, I remember that game like we just played yesterday.
“But that was the first step to get where we are right now.”