NHL playoffs: Penguins proving talent alone is not enough

Thursday June 6th, 2013

The Penguins have suffered from Kris Letang's defensive lapses and Sidney Crosby's offensive futility.
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The Pittsburgh Penguins are one of the NHL's marquee clubs and a main cog in the league's marketing efforts. Led by Sidney Crosby -- acclaimed as "The Face of the NHL" and the game's top player -- they fancy themselves as a perennial Stanley Cup contender. But this edition of the team is a flawed group and general manager Ray Shero may soon have to decide if it requires some significant changes if not a major overhaul.

It's big-time buzzkill, I know, to write that after Wednesday night's exceptionally entertaining Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bruins, a 2-1 win for Boston in the second overtime period that was probably the most exciting match so far in these playoffs. But let's face facts: The Pens are now unexpectedly down 3-0 in this series, one that they and many others expected would go their way. They'll have to look squarely in the mirror to find the reasons why it hasn't.

Yes, the Bruins have played terrific hockey. They've been very creative and opportunistic on offense, like this David Krejci goal in Game 2.

They've also been well-structured defensively. They've been great killing penalties. They've gotten superb goaltending from Tuukka Rask. They've shown admirable courage, and Gregory Campbell's broken- legged shift in the second period of Game 3 is likely to become legendary.

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And the B's have lived up to their identity in the belligerence department (see: Marchand, Brad).

But goals like Krejci's and many of the rest resulted from awful play by Pittsburgh in its own zone, starting with Norris Trophy nominee Kris Letang, who is a minus-five in this series and has been on the ice for seven of the Bruins' 11 goals. Boston went ahead 1-0 again early on Wednesday, yet another goal during which Letang seemed lost. He finally played up to his abilities the remainder of the evening, just as the rest of the Penguins did.

But the damage was done.

The Pens' breakdowns have been monumental and it makes you wonder if Pittsburgh had a plan for, or practiced, defensive zone coverage heading into this series against a Bruins team lauded for its depth at forward. The fact that Pittsburgh has surrendered very early goals in two of the three games, one inside a half-minute and the other in less than two minutes, says much about their preparation, or lack of it.

If this series in over -- and it most likely is -- the Penguins may have lost it before it began by underestimated their foe. At times, they've played as if they didn't anticipate that the Bruins -- whose coach, Claude Julien, called a Jekyll and Hyde club -- being as good as they are.

But even if the Pens entered the conference championship round believing they had a worthy opponent, another part of their mindset obviously failed them when they pulled a reprise of their silly behavior from last season's opening round loss to Philadelphia, in which they allowed the antagonistic Flyers to goad them into taking bad penalties and being more concerned with foolish vendettas than doing what suits the Penguins best: making use of their considerable skill.

We saw it in Game 1 of this round, highlighted by that stupid mess at the end of the second period, which included the fight between Evgeni Malkin and Patrice Bergeron, not to mention Crosby ridiculously trying to lure the behemoth Zdeno Chara into some sort of contretemps -- and by now you may have seen the Photoshopped image of a roaring King Kong-like Chara lifting Crosby over his head, which is how that episode could have ended had Chara elected to take the bait. Well, one captain showed discipline, the other didn't.

The score was only 1-0 at the time, but that incident showed that the Penguins are again prone to distraction -- and the Bruins were overjoyed to aid and abet them. Inside of eight minutes into the third period, Boston had scored twice more to put the game away.

Whatever plan the Penguins had going into Game 2 flew out the window when Marchand's goal 28 seconds after the opening face-off. The Pens reacted as if in shock. Instead of a sustained pushback, they looked mostly befuddled while falling 6-1. And the game really wasn't even that close, the signature sequence coming after Dan Bylsma's decision to pull goalie Tomas Vokoun following that great Krejci goal above. The intent might have been to jumpstart his club, and the Penguins did score about three minutes later. But there's a reason why one-time playoff hero Marc-Andre Fleury has been benched in favor of Vokoun since early in the first round, and Fleury reminded us when he gave the goal right back 25 seconds later.

It wasn't hard to recognize something important is missing in the Penguins after dropping those first two games at home. At least in Game 3, they did stiffen after the Bruins scored early in the first period. But the lack of discipline hurt them again midway through the frame when Joe Vitale took a completely needless roughing minor during the stoppage for an interference penalty on Boston's Johnny Boychuk, nullifying a Pittsburgh power play.

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As talented as the Penguins are -- that is indisputable -- it takes much more than talent to win in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. How that talent is channeled and deployed through coaching, preparation and discipline are equally important, and teams must have a mental toughness to compliment whatever physical toughness is on their roster. Like last year, the Penguins haven't shown enough of that.

Some in Pittsburgh, no doubt, are ready to blow up the whole thing. Ron Cook in The Post-Gazette wrote on the eve of Game 3 that the futures of Bylsma, Fleury, Malkin, Letang, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis, Matt Cooke, Craig Adams, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray were all at stake in this series and if they lose, "Only Crosby will be safe. That will be especially true if the Penguins continue to put up little or no fight and go out in four or five games."

They put up a good fight on Wednesday, but still fell short. Their fans can try taking solace in the fact that the most recent team to drop a series after leading 3-0 was the Bruins in 2010. But in that collapse against Philly, Krejci was injured, Rask was in his first full NHL season, and the Bruins as a team had yet to learn what it takes to win a Stanley Cup.

So, barring some sort of mystical intervention that reverses things, Shero could soon be looking at making hard calls about who wears the Penguins sweater next season and who doesn't. He'll also have to mull over who will be behind their bench. Bylsma hasn't duplicated his team's journey to the 2009 Cup championship, but each year he's had to contend with missing core members of his club. That's not the case now.

With their full roster finally intact, the Penguins thought they'd be playing for the big trophy in the next round, if not flat out winning it. But they've underwhelmed their opposition in this round and the Cup is almost certainly headed elsewhere.

Some of those who have long been part of the Penguins may be headed elsewhere, too.

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