NEW YORK, N.Y. – A ringing phone in a hallway at Madison Square Garden interrupted Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma’s news conference after the Penguins’ latest tough loss.
Bylsma made a fake move to answer it and chuckled when someone joked, “It’s Mario.”
“It could be,” Bylsma said, but he was hardly in a laughing mood after his team’s lost weekend in New York.
No, co-owner Mario Lemieux wasn’t calling. He did his talking earlier Sunday when he lashed out at the NHL for how it handled punishments following a night of brawling in Pittsburgh’s 9-3 loss to the New York Islanders on Friday.
In a powerful and hard-hitting statement, the Hockey Hall of Famer questioned whether he wanted to remain a part of the league in which he became famous with the Penguins.
The extracurricular activity was just the latest black eye for the usually high-flying Penguins. Stanley Cup titles or trips to the final are generally the hockey topics when it comes to Pittsburgh.
That has changed dramatically in recent days. Things aren’t going well for the Penguins on or off the ice.
Even without Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and a host of other injured and suspended players, the Penguins are in no danger of falling out of the playoff race. But they aren’t feeling good about their current plight that reached close to rock-bottom status during weekend visits to New York’s Islanders and Rangers.
When the dust settled, the Penguins were 0-2 on the trip, outscored 14-6 and left to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the fight-filled loss on Long Island. The team bus was even in a minor accident on the way to an informal practice Saturday in Central Park.
Crosby, the face of the NHL, is out indefinitely because of a concussion; Malkin is done for the season because of a knee injury; forwards Arron Asham, Mike Comrie, Chris Kunitz and Mark Letestu are also sidelined; and hard-hitters Matt Cooke and Eric Godard are missing because of suspensions.
Fisticuffs and penalties are nothing new to the Penguins, who lead the NHL in fighting majors and penalty minutes per game. They entered Sunday’s game against the Rangers with the league’s most-efficient penalty-killing unit, but that has taken a hit, too. The Rangers scored three power-play goals in six chances, using the advantage to wipe out an early two-goal deficit en route to a 5-3 win.
That gave Pittsburgh four losses in five games after a five-game winning streak.
“When Sid and Geno are out, it’s two great players (missing),” forward Jordan Staal said. “We just have to find ways to win games.
“With the lack of players in our lineup, we can’t keep taking penalties.”
A pair of hits against Crosby in consecutive games in early January caused the concussion that has derailed his season. The over-the-top outbursts in the Islanders game were fuelled by an unpenalized hit Feb. 2 by Pittsburgh’s Max Talbot on New York’s Blake Comeau that also produced a concussion in the teams’ previous meeting.
Cooke, who always comes up in the discussion of the NHL’s dirtiest players, wasn’t in the lineup for Friday’s rematch because he was in the midst of a four-game suspension for driving Columbus defenceman Fedor Tyutin face first into the boards with a dangerous hit from behind.
With Cooke a key part of the Penguins roster, it made Lemieux’s rare comments that much more curious.
“Hockey is a tough, physical game, and it always should be. But what happened Friday night on Long Island wasn’t hockey. It was a travesty,” Lemieux said. “It was painful to watch the game I love turn into a sideshow like that.”
The Penguins’ blowout loss featured 346 penalty minutes, 10 ejections, 15 fighting majors and 20 misconducts. Pittsburgh has a league-high 61 fighting majors this season and averages 19.2 penalty minutes per game.
The NHL suspended New York forwards Trevor Gillies for nine games and Matt Martin for four and hit the team with a $100,000 fine, saying the Islanders “must bear some responsibility for their failure to control their players.”
Even though only Godard on Pittsburgh’s side was punished with an automatic 10-game ban for leaving the bench to join a fight and the Penguins avoided a fine, Lemieux was angry and dissatisfied.
No one on the Islanders left the bench.
“The NHL had a chance to send a clear and strong message that those kinds of actions are unacceptable and embarrassing to the sport. It failed,” he said. “We, as a league, must do a better job of protecting the integrity of the game and the safety of our players. We must make it clear that those kinds of actions will not be tolerated and will be met with meaningful disciplinary action.”
Nothing would cure the Penguins’ ills more than to have a healthy and young Mario Lemieux on the ice instead of the owner’s box, but Crosby’s return would certainly give them a big boost.
If only they knew when that would be.
No one in black and gold wants to use injuries as a reason for the team’s struggles, and so far they haven’t. The reality is, the makeshift lineup they are forced to put out isn’t as talented as the one Pittsburgh is used to.
The toll is catching up.
The Penguins will visit Colorado and defending Stanley Cup champion Chicago this week before finally returning home, but just for two games. After that, they will head out on another five-game trip. When that is over, only 15 games will remain before the playoffs.
“Everybody has a job to do and it’s to show up and play the way we want to play to win some hockey games,” Talbot said. “The best player in the league and a lot of other guys are hurt, but at the same time it’s no excuse for us.”