This is not, surprisingly, about the goals themselves.
The goals are awful, obviously. They're the epitome of the Marc-Andre Fleury-est of playoff performances: Misplay the puck behind the net, give up a critcial tying goal into a gaping 24-square-foot cage to complete a comeback of not one, not two, but three goals. Then you fan on a routine wrister from the line in overtime.
Now your team's series is tied two games to two and you're feeling like the reason why. Very familiar territory.
And still the defenses are rallied. This is a Cup-winning goalie, they say. Look at the all-time playoff wins and losses, they say. Everyone else has been bad as soon as the team gets up a few goals, they say. He played great right up until he conceded those two awful, typical goals, they say.
All of that isn't necessarily untrue. Fleury won a Stanley Cup (five years ago), he's won more playoff games than he's lost (by 11), the Penguins aren't playing very well (because they're not very good), and he did play well in Game 4 (before he gave up two crap goals in 3:13 to lose his team the game).
But let's not act like this isn't a problem, or like we couldn't have seen it coming from miles down the road.
There comes a time when everyone has to acknowledge the simple and uncomfortable truth about Fleury: He's a decidedly average regular-season goaltender, or even slightly below it — when examining only netminders who have played at least 300 games since the 2005-06 lockout (i.e. the guys who have been starters for the bulk of his career), he's 18th of 25 in save percentage — who goes to absolute pieces in the playoffs. Craft all the arguments in his favor you want, but there's no way to put lipstick on a .903 career postseason save percentage, or the fact that this postseason might be his first since winning the Cup in which he posts a save percentage that doesn't start with a 0.8.
Last year, after he gave up 17 goals in five games and got pulled from the playoff starter role, I wrote that the Penguins should strongly consider buying him out. They didn't, and we were told that he'd gotten his head on straight thanks to a sports psychologist, and he'd get a new goalie coach, and he was still young enough to get this all straightened out sufficiently. The evidence is now pretty sufficient that this is, in fact, not the case. Whatever plagues him when he gets to the postseason is still there.
Again, anyone could have predicted this. You didn't need some advanced hockey insight to say, “Marc-Andre Fleury? Yeah he's gonna be terrible in the playoffs, just like every year.” You didn't need assurances he'd be fine this time around, because you knew, in your heart of hearts, that he of course would not be.
But the problem isn't Fleury's performance on the ice. Well, it is. But it's not the only problem. The other problem, and perhaps the bigger one, is what Fleury does to the rest of the team. And I'm not talking about this nonsense mumbo jumbo of “they know he's going to blow it,” or “they grip their sticks tighter when they're in the defensive zone.”
The Penguins are devoting $5 million per season against the cap to this big-time actor in the annual tragedy of another playoff meltdown. Have been since before he won the Cup. That should tell you something about the general lack of vision most NHL general managers have when it comes to evaluating goaltender performance; while this current deal, which runs through the end of next season, was signed after Fleury went .921 in the regular season (though in just 35 games) and then .933 in the playoff run that resulted in a six-game defeat at the hands of the Red Wings, it followed a season in which he went .906 regular-season and .880 playoffs.
That he won the Cup in the first year of that deal ensured people in Pittsburgh would think he was worth the money forever. But over time, his frailties have become more apparent, and his contract and status as the clear No. 1 haven't changed. This is what that big money buys you, apparently.
And that's really the problem here. The Penguins aren't playing badly because it's the playoffs and they're not playing badly because they don't trust Fleury. They're playing badly because half their roster can't cut it. Tyler Dellow did the legwork to demonstrate just how bad Pittsburgh's third and fourth lines are at driving play. The second graph in that post illustrates just how badly they get buried.
Part of the reason for that is that Marc-Andre Fleury is viewed by Ray Shero and the other Penguins brass as an acceptable way of spending $5 million: League-average in the regular season, and a catastrophe in the playoffs. Pretty much guaranteed. It's Evgeni Nabokov all over again, with nary a lesson learned. The point is that this kind of money could be far better allocated to employing a cheaper goalie — one who can more ably not-explode in the playoffs and give you a roughly equivalent performance in the regular season; the stats say there are plenty out there — and then fixing up the bottom half of the team so that it at least resembles something an NHL team that's always talked about as somehow being a Cup contender actually needs to get to that point.
Evidence of the Penguins' depth issue is right there next to Sidney Crosby: Since the trade deadline he's been playing alongside Lee freakin' Stempniak, who wasn't even a top-line guy for the Calgary Flames. Stempniak has been fine, don't get me wrong, but this is the depth you're looking at in real life. Guys who are getting minutes much bigger than they should (Craig Adams and Tanner Glass and Rob Scuderi and Brooks Orpik, all of whom have corsi relative numbers that should have been flushed down the toilet) are still being used in high-leverage situations, and the Penguins are paying the price.
People have, in the wake of this latest meltdown, taken to blaming Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the team's woes, which is something I'll never understand. They're the best players on the team, and neither of them have a goal, but they're driving play to ludicrous extents (58.8 percent at 5-on-5 with the score close for Crosby, and 56.9 percent for Malkin) while playing big minutes. Crosby's on-ice shooting percentage is 4.2 percent.
Think that lasts? And he still has four assists in four games. So too does Malkin. They also both have 12 shots. Their alleged lack of production can be criticized, but if you think they're to blame for this mess, then you're not paying any kind of attention.
This is not, last I checked, the NBA, where one or two stars can be the difference between a good or bad team. No one can play as large a percentage of his team's hockey games as LeBron James or Kevin Durant do for theirs. If Crosby or Malkin or Ovechkin or Bergeron could play 45 or 50 minutes a night, their teams would score a lot more goals. Right now, the Penguins are still scoring 3.5 per game, which is a pretty damn good number. They're also allowing 3.5 per, and that's the issue. It's one that can't fall on Crosby and Malkin's shoulders. When those guys are on the ice, the Penguins are consistently being put in a far better position to win. It's no coincidence that it's largely those guys and their linemates, and the D pairings who share the ice with them, that are above water in terms of relative corsi. Eight Penguins are in positive territory in this regard (Crosby, Malkin, Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Brian Gibbons, Matt Niskanen, Paul Martin, and Olli Maatta), one (Jayson Menga) is even, and the rest are getting crumpled. Those are the guys who should be answerable.
And those are the guys who should be replaced with better players, but for the Pens' cap allocation problems. It's not just the $5 million for Fleury, though that's perhaps the most egregious. It's also the money for Orpik and Rob Scuderi (whose relative corsi is second-worst on the team at minus-10.3 percent, behind only Kris Letang's minus-12.5, but you gotta figure the latter still isn't anywhere near 100 percent).
Which is why it's funny that people are also blaming Dan Bylsma. He hasn't helped his cause any in the last few years, but neither has his team's depth. He can't put Crosby or Malkin out there every other shift, and thus he's going to see his team beaten back by opponents that, on paper and in theory and by reputation, shouldn't be as good as them. The talk that he's going to get fired if the Penguins flame out too early is starting up, and this time it's more believable than ever. He had excuses before, and he really has none now. At least, not insofar as people think this is some kind of a championship-caliber team. Which they do, and they shouldn't.
This is on Shero as much as it's on Fleury. Not that anyone in Pittsburgh will ever acknowledge it.
You can't fault the team for putting a combined $17.4 million toward Crosby and Malkin, even if it is 27 percent of the salary cap this year. They're two of the three or four best players on the planet. But that other 73 percent? It's not being spent very wisely, and Fleury is the poster boy for that. It isn't Fleury's fault, of course. If someone offers you an average of $5 million a season to play hockey, you take it. Gotta look out for yourself.
But even if it's not his fault, Fleury is the primary reason the Penguins are in this position, facing all these questions from top to bottom, both on the ice and in the ledgers.