There is a funny thing about these Pittsburgh Penguins and their dance along the knife edge of oblivion.
A win Tuesday night in Game 7 of their second-round NHL playoff series against the New York Rangers means head coach Dan Bylsma and his confounding players can turn to management and say, “Hey, now we’re in our fourth conference final in the last six years. We must be great.”
A loss, though, means owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle look at general manager Ray Shero and say, “This is the fifth consecutive year your team was knocked out of the playoffs by a lower-seeded opponent. Tell us why you, Bylsma and most of the players should not be sacked.”
At this point, with superstar captain Sidney Crosby stuck on one postseason goal and showing his frustration with an uncharacteristic temper tantrum at the end of the second period of Game 6 – expressed with some stickwork and a slewfoot on Ranger defenceman Dan Girardi – it is easier to bet on a Penguins loss.
How bad is it? For starters, the Penguins have allowed a team that could not score a goal on them in Games 2 and 3 to outscore them 8-2 in the past two games to force the seventh and deciding game at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. In both of those games, the Penguins knew the Rangers were going to come out playing on an emotional rush for teammate Marty St. Louis, whose mother died unexpectedly last Thursday, but stood around in the first period each night.
It’s so bad that Lemieux actually made an appearance in the Penguins’ dressing room after Game 6, braving the presence of the media and other unwashed types to talk to Crosby in the wake of his meltdown.
There is no doubt now that a Game 7 loss to the Rangers or a quick exit in the Eastern Conference final like last year’s sweep at the hands of the Boston Bruins will bring on cataclysmic change to the Penguins, who were supposed to be the first post-salary-cap dynasty, but never quite managed it. Ever since the Penguins made the Stanley Cup finals in 2008 and then won it all in 2009, it’s been one disappointment after another. One more will be the tipping point for Lemieux.
First on the firing line is Bylsma. We never like to call for a coach’s dismissal, but there is an obvious disconnect here. He was just what the Penguins needed in 2009, coming in as the soft-spoken anti-Michel Therrien to coax the star-laden cast to a championship. Since then, that expected run of Cups slipped farther and farther into the distance.
Unlike that other perennial playoff underachiever, the San Jose Sharks, the Penguins’ troubles seem more related to coaching than player personnel, with the notable exception of goaltender Marc-André Fleury. The Boston Bruins smothered Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang et al in the 2013 conference final and Bylsma was unable to counter Boston head coach Claude Julien’s system. The Columbus Blue Jackets gave the Penguins fits in this year’s first round with their physical, hard forechecking game. Now, the Rangers have silenced the Penguins’ power play, the best in the league in the regular season but stuck in a one-for-19 funk in this series.
Jacques Martin was brought in to coach the defensive game after last year’s humiliation by the Bruins, but the holes remain. Fleury is rightly under fire again after allowing a couple of soft goals in the past two games despite some big saves, although the Penguins’ coverage in their own zone is a hit-and-miss affair. And speaking of hitting, the Penguins do precious little of it.
Shero may have to do some fast talking to hang on to his job. He has made some excellent trades to bolster his team, particularly at the trade deadline, but drafting and developing players is a different matter. Since he took centre Jordan Staal second overall in 2006, Shero’s record at the NHL entry draft is spotty.
There were significant wins in 2010, when he took right winger Beau Bennett 20th overall, and in 2012 in taking defenceman Olli Maatta 22nd overall, but there are lots of misses. The only other player on the Penguins’ roster drafted by them after 2006 is part-time defenceman Robert Bortuzzo.
Crosby and Malkin are not going anywhere, but the same cannot be said of players such as winger James Neal, who looks lost with his centre Malkin playing with Crosby, and, of course, Fleury. If they want to stay together, these guys know what it will take Tuesday night.