Mike Sullivan applying past lessons to Sidney Crosby and the Penguins

Sidney Crosby likes the accountability and discipline Mike Sullivan brought with him when he took over in Pittsburgh. AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Pittsburgh Penguins coach Mike Sullivan earned a Stanley Cup ring with the 2014-15 Chicago Blackhawks as a member of the organization's development team. It's a special keepsake securely tucked away somewhere, but it would mean much more if he were to ever win a championship as a coach.

In order for that to happen in Pittsburgh, captain Sidney Crosby needs to lead the way.

Crosby, 28, didn't have the best start to this season. In fact, the entire team struggled out of the gate, forcing the organization to make a coaching change when it fired Mike Johnston and replaced him with Sullivan on Dec. 12.

At that time, Crosby had only six goals and 13 assists in the first 28 games. Since the coaching change, No. 87 has 22 goals and 25 assists in 37 games.

During Crosby's early-season struggles, one prominent NHLer, who has won a Stanley Cup, was asked to name the best player in the world. His answer: Crosby.

This player isn't even Canadian. He isn't American, either. He's a European player, but he didn't hesitate when asked the question. Crosby has been outstanding since the middle of December and the Penguins currently hold the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.

It's no coincidence Crosby's resurgence began when Sullivan arrived.

"Prior to the coaching change I felt like, leading up to that I was starting to play better, felt like my game was coming along," Crosby said. "It doesn't happen overnight. It takes time and I felt it was going in the right direction. Obviously, when there's a [coaching] change everyone takes that to heart and realizes we've got to look in a mirror and be better, and individually I did the same thing. As a group, we've all come together and been a lot better, and when you do that individually it's better for everyone."

Said one Western Conference scout about Crosby's resurgence: "He's been a totally different player since the coaching change."

During his NHL career, Crosby has played for five different coaches in Pittsburgh, including Eddie Olczyk, Michel Therrien, Dan Bylsma, Johnston and now Sullivan. When Sullivan arrived, he had a meeting with the leadership group and explained his philosophy and expectations. He wasn't asking for much.

"Everyone has their own [coaching] identity, but with him accountability is a big thing," Crosby said of Sullivan. "You could tell right away no matter what position, what the detail is, it's all important. There's no big or small, every detail is important. He's very detailed when it comes to being responsible, being accountable, little things like being on time. He really pays a lot of attention to that and that's important, as far as discipline and that's helped us."

When Sullivan was a rookie coach in the NHL for the Boston Bruins in 2003-04, Joe Thornton was the team's captain. He was 24 and had already been in the league for six seasons after the Bruins selected him with the No. 1 overall pick in the 1997 NHL entry draft.

Sullivan played 11 seasons in the NHL with four different teams and was a one-time teammate of Thornton's in Boston during his rookie season in 1997-98. When Sullivan later became coach of the Bruins, his intentions were to motivate Thornton to become a complete player. Sullivan admitted he may have over-coached Thornton, but that experience has helped Sullivan coach superstars like Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in Pittsburgh.

"One of the biggest challenges of coaching in this league is how you handle the star players," Sullivan said. "It's an important relationship for the coach and the players."

There's a fine line between how much you coach a player and how much latitude you give a player to act on his instincts.

"It's a balancing act. My experience going through the league over the last 10, 11, 12 years has helped me manage that balancing act a little bit better," Sullivan said.

It's amazing to think that the Penguins have won only one Stanley Cup with Crosby on the roster. That 2008-09 season seems like a lifetime ago for him. He understands the commitment and luck involved in winning a Cup and he hopes to realize that feeling once again with the Penguins.

Since Crosby hoisted the Cup in June of 2009 after beating the Detroit Red Wings, the Penguins have lost in the first round three times, twice in the second round and once in the conference finals.

"It's tough to win. The expectations are there for a lot of teams and everyone's fighting for the same thing," Crosby said. "You see at the deadline, you see how many teams are making moves, trying to get that last push in to make a run. There are so many things that can happen, you need to have luck too, but it's difficult to win and you've got to put yourself in a position to win and get some bounces along the way, too."

On Tuesday, Crosby was one of the first players on the ice for the morning skate as the Penguins prepared to play the New York Islanders at Barclays Center. Penguins assistant coach Rick Tocchet stood in the corner and fed Crosby puck after puck as he worked on receiving a pass and quickly getting a shot on net from pointblank range. His accuracy and success rate were impressive.

"What has impressed me since I've been here is just his preparation process," Sullivan said. "He has an insatiable appetite for the game and to get better. He's the first guy on the ice. He's constantly trying to improve his game and get better. He's not as good as he is by accident. His preparation process is admirable and it rubs off on our team.

"When your leaders are your hardest workers, it makes it easier for the coach to come in and hold everybody else accountable to that standard and Sid's one of those guys that does that for us."

Pittsburgh has 16 games remaining this season, and each one will have playoff ramifications. It's going to be a good test for Crosby and the Penguins if they can earn a postseason berth.

During his seven seasons as an assistant coach in the NHL, Sullivan watched Crosby dominate time and again. The two are working well together now, both on and off the ice, and that could equal a deep run in the playoffs.

"I'd much rather have him on my bench," Sullivan said.