As frustrated and disappointed that I’ve been through the first four games of this series, I still firmly believe the Penguins are the better team and no matter what obstacles present themselves, Sidney Crosby is going to will this team to a series victory. He hasn’t really performed at the level we’re accustomed to seeing outside of his game two return scoring two goals and after taking a shot to the throat in game four, he was a virtual ghost unless of course, you noticed Islanders center Frans Nielsen skating around trailing Crosby at his every move.
Penguins Head Coach Dan Bylsma is not a believer in matching lines.
If there was ever a time to shed those beliefs, now would be a good time to do it. Crosby missed a quarter of the season due to the broken jaw, he’s probably just now working himself into game-playing shape. Why not try to get Crosby out on the ice against the Isles John Tavares and make his line try to play defense?
Dictating the action by matching forward lines has to happen in game five, not just for Crosby to flourish but also find ways to get Evgeni Malkin against better in-game situations than where he’s finding himself right now.
The Penguins talked all offseason and training camp about how they learned their lessons from the Flyers series loss in the playoffs and wouldn’t allow teams to force them to lose their composure.
That lack of discipline is evident in Malkin’s game right now, which can’t continue for the Penguins to win a Stanley Cup, let alone survive this series. Wouldn’t it be great if one of those veteran acquisitions to stood up and lead without the Captain’s C stitched to their jersey and got into Malkin’s head?
Malkin isn’t the only franchise star having a rough go at the game mentally, one could say Marc-Andre Fleury is having himself a fourth straight disappointing playoff performance since winning the Cup.Fleury has posted save percentages of .891, .899, .834, and now this year’s .891, which is leading many to question if Fleury is crumbling under the intense expectations of a franchise that so many of us expected to have won at least one more Cup during this time frame due to the core of the team.
Just as talk has started to bubble around the long-term viability of the Penguins retaining Malkin, same might be even more true of Fleury. Ray Shero and others might have tried to talk a good game about the acquisition of veteran netminder Tomas Vokoun last offseason as just another piece to the team, someone to help keep Fleury fresh and make him better but now going into game five, Vokoun is doing more than just being a mentor, he’s going to get his shot to take the crease and save the team.
If Vokoun stars tonight in game five, Bylsma can’t possibly switch back to Fleury and if that happens, we just might… just might have seen the last of Fleury as the team’s franchise goaltender.
It wouldn’t surprise in the least if the Penguins decide to trade Fleury in the offseason to address some depth problems up front at forward with so many key contributors about to reach free agency.
Remember, Penguins made a surprising move by signing US college hockey goaltender Eric Hartzell as a free agent after his season ended. The Penguins might have enough confidence in this young goaltender to pare him up with Vokoun to actually move forward without Fleury.
Maybe Vokoun wins game five and six, then Bylsma does the unthinkable by starting Fleury in game one of the next series and he plays better and leads the team to a Cup. Then maybe all that hand wringing was for naught but I don’t think that’s case.
Which leads me to Bylsma and his coaching staff.
I firmly believe Bylsma is a good coach but he’s stubborn and too much of a believer in his own philosophy that if the team plays his system without mistakes, they can’t lose. While on their way to winning a Cup, we saw him change the way the team attacked on the forecheck by having a third forward high in the offensive zone and had put in an aggressive penalty-killing system but since then, the team has struggled defensively in their own zone as he made changes to their puck retrieval and back-checking assignments the next season.
In game four, I was constantly amazed at how poorly the team back-checked leaving players open, shift after shift. There was no better example of the team’s questionable effort than in game four when Root Sports color commentator Bob Errey yelled, “get back, get back” as the Isles went from a simple two-on-two rush to being threatened with a three-on-two as Malkin, James Neal and Jarome Iginla were far behind the play and not digging in to back-check.
At the end of the day, NHL head coaches are hired and fired after a few seasons. Bylsma has had a tremendous amount of talent to win another Cup and if the team fails to right itself and spirals into another first round series exit, there’s going to be more than simple questions about his philosophy.
We could see tremendous change this offseason but I believe in Crosby, I believe Vokoun is the right goaltender to change the momentum in this series, and I believe Bylsma is like a wounded animal cornered with no choice but to find a way to survive.
I want to believe.