Paul Martin leads the Pittsburgh Penguins in playoff points.
That is nice for the veteran defenceman but it says just about all you need to know about the Penguins in their first-round NHL playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, which resumes Saturday. Martin has eight assists in four games, double the number of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and the same number of goals as the superstar pair – zero.
The only other thing to know is that after Marc-André Fleury tantalized the fans into thinking he was the playoff goaltender of 2009 over the first three games, in the space of about three minutes in Game 4 he turned into the post-season flop of 2010 through 2013. In other words, he wilted when the heat was on. Maybe that’s why they call him Flower.
So once again the Penguins, as talented a team as you can find in the salary-cap era, are at the centre of a playoff storm. Since winning the Stanley Cup in 2009 and being declared the NHL’s next dynasty, the Pens have been as far as the Eastern Conference final once, where they were summarily dismissed by the Boston Bruins last year, and were bounced in the first round twice.
The young Blue Jackets have the series tied 2-2 because they won’t stop hitting (215 in the first four games), they don’t give up in those long stretches when the Penguins wake up and put the puck on a string and they were such underdogs coming into the series there is no pressure on them. This makes for a great series for the fans, where two-goal leads are as safe as Lindsay Lohan’s virtue.
Of course, Fleury, Crosby and Malkin are making it easier for them. Fleury, always an adventure when he decides to handle the puck, handled it into the tying goal with 24 seconds left in the third period of Game 4, and then whiffed on a routine wrist shot 2:49 into overtime to turn a looming 3-1 series stranglehold into a tie and new life for the Blue Jackets.
Since Tomas Vokoun, who had to take over for Fleury in the 2013 playoffs, just returned to the ice after missing the entire season due to a blood clot, Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma’s only option is minor-league veteran Jeff Zatkoff. That’s why Bylsma, shortly after slamming Fleury for trying to play the puck behind his net, said he is sure the goaltender will shine in front of a home crowd Saturday night.
Fleury’s sudden gaffes after playing well enough to not be an issue to that point in the series would not have mattered if Crosby and Malkin had shown up.
Neither star has displayed any sustained excellence. This is not a surprise in the case of Malkin, whose interest on the big stage is always ephemeral. He does have a Conn Smythe Trophy as the 2009 playoff MVP, but if there were an award for the big star who most often disappears in big events, Malkin would be a contender.
Crosby, though, has everyone scratching their heads. There is a strong suspicion he is playing with an injury, although Bylsma says he is healthy. Crosby missed two games at the end of the regular season with an undisclosed injury and he was spotted limping a little at one point in Game 2.
What bothers Bylsma even more, though, was the compete level of his entire team. While there have been spots where the Penguins controlled the play at will, there were others, particularly in the last two periods of Game 4, where they laid down like a bunch of Toronto Maple Leafs.
“The work and compete and the battle level has probably been the most troubling thing from our team,” Bylsma, who normally shies away from public criticism, said Thursday. He also pointed out Fleury had no business chasing that puck in the last minute and then completed the trifecta with jabs at Crosby and Malkin.
“We’ve talked about this question with Evgeni and Sidney scoring goals,” the coach said. “Do they need to score goals? Do we need more? They’re our best players. We need more from our whole team. And we need more from them.”
Fleury said Friday he made a mistake and intends to put it behind him. He is “looking forward to getting in there at home in front of our fans. It should be pretty exciting. I’ve been around for a while and the people have been nice.”
Well, don’t count on it. The Penguins’ playoff implosions seem to be wearing on the locals. They were booed by the Consol Energy Center crowd in Game 2 and as of Friday afternoon, there were still tickets for sale for Saturday’s game. That would have been unthinkable not long ago.
Follow me on Twitter: @dshoalts