PITTSBURGH, Pa. – Dan Bylsma didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t throw anything. He didn’t bark orders. The Pittsburgh Penguins coach knows such histrionics are unnecessary when coaching a roster littered with so much talent and experience.
Instead, Bylsma spent a full minute in the middle of the Consol Energy Center ice on Wednesday morning and issued a reminder—using the kind of language that would make affably profane Anaheim Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau blush—to his team about “playing the right way.”
It’s a formula that includes occasionally valuing the puck in the defensive end and not trying to turn rush into a chance to make the highlight reel, a formula the Penguins admit they’ve gotten away from in recent weeks.
Covering up the mistakes is easy when you’re the NHL’s highest scoring team, at least for awhile.
“I think you fall into a trap,” defenceman Brooks Orpik said. “I think especially when you get away with it for a few games. It starts snowballing and you get on a roll and you think it’s going to keep happening.”
Until it doesn’t.
The Penguins were stunned by the New York Islanders on Tuesday night, a 5-3 loss in which the Islanders picked apart a mostly defenceless Marc-Andre Fleury, who was often left alone to contend with New York’s perfectly timed counterattacks.
Fleury stopped just 13 of the 18 shots he faced and spent the third period watching from the bench. The loss came three days after Ottawa pummeled backup Brad Thiessen in an 8-4 defeat.
Not exactly the kind of defensive play that tends to hold up long in the playoffs, and the Penguins know it.
“We’ve got to be willing to win 2-0 instead of 6-4, 7-4,” Orpik said. “When you play good teams it’s tough to win when you play that wide open.”
It’s easy to get seduced when you have the league’s most potent and deep attack. Pittsburgh has the NHL’s leading scorer in Evgeni Malkin and six players with at least 19 goals—including former grinders Matt Cooke and Pascal Dupuis. That figure doesn’t include Crosby, who has been limited to 16 games due to concussion-like symptoms.
The Penguins are second in the league in shots per game (34.0) and when playing at their best they can tilt the ice so heavily it appears they’re on the power play for long stretches even with both teams at even strength.
It also makes them at risk for the kind of defensive breakdowns that have plagued them recently.
Fleury is finishing up perhaps his best season but there’s a reason his save percentage is a ho-hum .915. All that firepower and defencemen jumping up into the play leads to odd-man rushes the other way when the Penguins get sloppy with the puck.
“We can’t be giving up 17-18 scoring chances against and asking (Fleury) to be outstanding every single night,” forward Steve Sullivan said.
Mostly because on the nights when Fleury is off, the Penguins are in trouble. Thiessen is a rookie and veteran backup Brent Johnson has struggled.
Pittsburgh’s quest for a second Cup in four years will rely on how much help Fleury receives from his teammates.
At the moment, that’s not much, and no player is immune, not even former MVPs.
The Penguins bounced back the debacle in Ottawa by beating New Jersey on Sunday, but not without some difficultly. During the first period Crosby took a short pass from Deryk Engelland deep in the Pittsburgh end and offered a lacklustre pass up the middle that New Jersey’s Zach Parise stole and converted into an easy goal as Fleury scrambled to get back in position.
“We have to make sure we tighten things up,” Crosby said.
They’ve got two weeks to get it done.
The Penguins have been so good since ending a six-game losing streak in early January—they are an NHL-best 26-6-2 since January 13—they’ve entertained thoughts of catching the New York Rangers for the top spot in the Eastern Conference. Those hopes have taken a hit in the last week and the Rangers have a three-point lead with six games remaining in the regular season.
A fourth-place finish would set up a showdown with the hated Philadelphia Flyers in the opening round of the playoffs, a series where Crosby, Malkin and company will likely have little room to operate.
Pittsburgh knows it can’t just coast through the last 10 days of the regular season and morph into a defensive juggernaut overnight.
“It’s definitely going to catch up with you,” Orpik said. “That’s something we try to keep in mind. There’s too many good teams to say ‘when we get to playoffs, we’ll just turn the switch on and play the right way.'”
It’s why the normally reserved Bylsma decided it was time to speak up. He only does it occasionally, often to great effect.
“He’s got a pretty good pulse of the room,” Orpik said. “It’s not like we have a young group here that doesn’t know what’s going on. It’s been addressed before today. Obviously it hasn’t been corrected yet.”
Time’s running out.