NEW YORK — Penguins coach Mike Sullivan and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella are good friends. They play golf together — and apparently Tortorella is given strokes, as Sullivan hilariously explained last week. They’re also fierce competitors.
Which means that they may exchange a few friendly words here in the next 48 hours, but it won’t be much and that’ll be about it for two weeks.
Maybe more depending on what promises to be one of the NHL’s feistiest first-round series plays out.
But as sexy of a storyline as this may be — best-on-best (friend) competition, teacher versus pupil — the two men at the center of it all would rather the spotlight be shone elsewhere.
“This series really isn’t about us,” Sullivan said. “It’s about two really good hockey teams and it’s about real good players who are going to compete hard. That’s what should be celebrated. That’s what should be talked about.
“Yes, we’re close friends. But when the puck drops, it’s going to be like every other game out there. We’re going to try and do everything for our respective teams to try to win.”
There’s no denying the link between the two. Sullivan worked under Tortorella with the Lightning, Rangers and Canucks. Learned a lot. Had a lot of success.
After the last stop, Sullivan went his own way, made a year pit stop in Chicago, then took the Penguins’AHL job in Wilkes-Barre.
Throughout Sullivan’s quest to run his own team, one of the stigmas that he had to shed was that he was the same as Tortorella. Sullivan’s not. In fact, they’re hugely different.
But they remain close, even if that relationship probably won’t be cared about much over the two-plus weeks.
“I might have a conversation with him before it all starts,” Sullivan said. “Once the series starts, he’s going to be worried about his team, and I’m going to be worried about mine.”
Blue Jackets goalie Sergei Bobrovsky makes save on Penguins winger Patric Hornqvist in the teams last regular season matchup this month at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins do not expect every inch of ice to be contested in this one.
Probably more like centimeters.
The two teams really don’t like each other much, and every time they’ve played it’s turned physical in a hurry — except, of course, for the last meeting, a 4-1 Penguins win on April 4 that was oddly civil.
“If you look at their lineup, they have some big bodies,” Penguins forward Tom Kuhnhackl said. “Obviously they want to establish their forecheck with all the physical guys they have. We have to have a gameplan coming out of our zone. Just have to be ready for them.”
Columbus and Pittsburgh met back in 2014, with the Penguins winning in six. Five of the six games ended in a 4-3 score, the lone exception a 3-1 Penguins win in Game 5.
Both of the Blue Jackets’ wins came in overtime.
Each team went 2-1-1 in the season series in 2016-17.
“We’ve played each other a lot over the last couple of years,” defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We know them well being so close to us. We’ve played some meaningful games against them recently. We expect it to be a tight-checking game. They have a good team. It should be a fun series.”
After the Penguins’ 3-2 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night, the mood in the dressing room went something like this: Can we play some real hockey already?
“This is the fun part of the year,” center Nick Bonino said. “Good team all year in Columbus. We’ve had our battles with them. As intense as it’s been in the regular season the last two years I’ve been here, we know it’s going to be a physical series. We’re looking forward to it.”
As intense as everyone expects this series to be, it may be even more so, Sidney Crosby pointed out, because it’s happening in the opening round.
“You look at that first series, you know that one everyone’s so amped up for that,” Crosby said. “Sometimes the most physical ones are the first ones.
“You look at the games we played them this year, I think besides one they’re all pretty tight games, very similar, a lot of intensity, a lot of emotion. Being the playoffs you expect that to be even more so. It will be a physical series and a good test for us.”
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