Penguins at a crossroads as Sullivan takes over

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PITTSBURGH (AP) Mike Sullivan's voice is unmistakable. Loud. Authoritative. Animated.

And, the Pittsburgh Penguins hope, an alarm clock.

One of the NHL's marquee draws is in the midst of an identity crisis more than a third of the way into a season that began with typically high expectations, goals that at the moment appear impossibly out of reach. The Penguins aren't scoring. They occasionally aren't defending and - perhaps most troubling - the magic they once summoned so easily seems to have disappeared.

''I think we're bottom of the league in goals scored this year and I'm pretty sure we shouldn't be, right?'' forward Phil Kessel asked, only somewhat rhetorically.

Pittsburgh's 4-1 loss to Washington on Monday night in Sullivan's debut dropped the Penguins to 15-11-3. They remain in a tie for ninth in the Eastern Conference and are 27th in goals per game despite ranking fifth in shots. The power play littered with All-Stars is 28th, ahead of only Calgary and Arizona. Not exactly the neighborhood Pittsburgh planned to be living in as the New Year approaches.

Enter Sullivan, who spent a decade grinding out a career as a defensive-minded forward before getting into coaching. He now finds himself trying to get Pittsburgh's highly capable, occasionally highly strung players working in unison.

Nowhere are Pittsburgh's struggles more evident than in Sidney Crosby's prolonged funk. The two-time Hart Trophy winner is on pace for career lows in goals and points, and his team appears destined for a four-month battle just to reach the postseason let alone make a serious run at Stanley Cup to bookend the one he and fellow superstar Evgeni Malkin won in 2009 back when a dynasty seemed almost inevitable.

It never happened thanks to a mix of injuries, bad luck and a handful of meek flameouts in the playoffs. The shine on one of hockey's biggest success stories has dimmed. While the team has played to a full house for nearly eight years and counting, it's one of the few constants for a franchise in flux.

Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero, the coach and general manager who helped make the Penguins one of the league's must-see attractions, are gone. Forward Pascal Dupuis, long the glue in a dressing room of diverse personalities, retired abruptly last week due to lingering health concerns surrounding the blood clotting issue that cut short his 2014-15 season. Defenseman Rob Scuderi, brought in more than two years ago to provide the blue line with some needed grit, became a pariah as his game deteriorated and was shipped off to Chicago on Monday night for Trevor Daley.

Co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle are shopping the club, at least when the notoriously private Lemieux isn't taking to Twitter to shoot down speculation of a rift between himself and Crosby.

The day-to-day drama that seems to follow the Penguins wherever they go aside - on Tuesday alone the Penguins said goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury is out for a spell with a concussion and star-crossed forward Beau Bennett will miss at least a month with a shoulder injury - the ever accessible Crosby allows ''we have to be better.''

Though general manager Jim Rutherford stressed ''I certainly don't think we've got a huge issue to fix here'' when he fired Mike Johnston on Saturday after 18 largely ineffective months, he admitted he's uncertain what kind of impact Sullivan will make.

''We never know what a coaching change is going to do,'' Rutherford said.

Sullivan hit all the right notes during his first couple of days on the job, his heavy Boston accent echoing through the lower bowl of Consol Energy Center during his initial practice as he barked out drills, a stark departure from the thoughtful and decidedly more professorial Johnston.

''We create an environment here that we inspire people to play,'' he said. ''That's an energy that starts well before a puck drops. I want to create an environment here ... where they want to come to the rink, where they want to work.''

And if they don't, Sullivan insists they will sit regardless of pedigree.

''Those that play well will be rewarded with more play,'' Sullivan said.

If, that is, they play the right way. The Penguins led the league in scoring in 2012 and 2013 but have struggled to adjust as the NHL becomes more diluted due to an uptick in physical play that made open ice scarce. The power play is more vital than ever because of increasingly limited opportunities but Pittsburgh seems unable to shake the idea that every goal must be of the highlight-reel variety.

''One of the things I am going to try and impress upon them is we can't look for the perfect play,'' Sullivan said.

Sullivan would prefer the Penguins get the puck - and themselves - to the net as often as possible. It's a message Johnston repeated constantly, one his players appeared to tune out. While Sullivan doesn't believe Pittsburgh needs a massive overhaul, there are plenty of old habits he'd like to see kicked.

Several of them were evident against Washington.

While Penguins threw 45 shots at Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby, few of them came from in close and rarely did Holtby have to deal with a black jersey in front of him as he searched for the puck. Malkin, who has easily been Pittsburgh's best player outside of Fleury, ended one shift by lazily backhanding a centering pass instead of just sending the puck around the boards. The turnover led to a two-on-one the other way.

It was an avoidable mistake, the kind Sullivan knows it's his job to help eliminate. The last time Pittsburgh switched coaches during a season, three months later Bylsma was helping hoist the Stanley Cup. At this point, the Penguins will settle for a win at Boston on Wednesday.

''We'll focus on the process,'' Sullivan said. ''We'll pull ourselves out of this.''

The alarm is buzzing. It's up to the Penguins to answer it.