PITTSBURGH — It starts with Sidney Crosby, and this started with Sidney Crosby, so let’s start at the beginning.
Trailing in a series for the first time in these playoffs, the Pittsburgh Penguins knew they needed to respond to the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final. Their own coach, Dan Bylsma, had said he thought the team that scored first would win Monday night.
Crosby, who had struggled in the circle in Game 1, won the opening faceoff. Crosby, who had lost his cool in Game 1, took the first shot.
Then Crosby, a finalist for the Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player, made the first mistake. The puck bounced to him just inside the Boston blue line. In retrospect, he wished he had made a harder play. But in that moment, he made a soft one – swinging his stick and chipping the puck at two charging Bruins.
Brad Marchand scored on a breakaway, and the Bruins rolled to a 6-1 victory and a 2-0 series lead. From their superstars to their role players to their goaltenders, the Penguins kept making mistakes, kept getting burned, kept digging their hole even deeper. It was 2-0 and 3-0, and then seconds after it was 3-1, it was 4-1. It was 5-1 and 6-1 and no fun for the fans who streamed out of the stands in the third period.
The Penguins looked flustered and sloppy; the Bruins looked calm and solid. The Penguins looked out of sync; the Bruins looked, well, better. It was as if the Penguins had a loose stitch in their sweaters, and the Bruins yanked it. Everything unraveled. The Pens were exposed.
“I mean, tonight was terrible,” Crosby said. “There’s no other way to describe it. We were not good in really any area. …
“I turn that puck over there 30 seconds in. They get up, 1-0, and it felt like we probably tried to get it back and might have taken some chances to do that. We tried to start chasing when we were down a couple, and once you start doing that against a good hockey team, you start putting yourself in pretty bad positions.”
[Related: Bruins dominate Penguins for 2-0 series lead in East final]
How does this happen? How does a team perform this poorly with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang and James Neal and Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis and on and on? The Penguins won 15 straight at one point. They led the league in scoring in the regular season and the first two rounds of the playoffs. Now they have been outscored in two games, 9-1.
The Bruins are damn good. They have four strong lines and a deep defense and a great goalie in Tuukka Rask. They play a simple, physical, defensive style – always on the right side of the puck. They won the Stanley Cup two years ago and very well could win it again.
But that doesn’t explain this. There was nothing surprising about the Bruins’ approach. There was nothing exceptional about Rask’s play. Crosby refused to give the Bruins too much credit – and he wasn’t being petulant.
“Not going to sit here and say it’s Rask or anything they’re doing,” Crosby said. “I still think that they’re a good team. They forecheck well, and they create things. But we made it way too easy on them tonight.”
The Penguins played relatively well in Game 1, despite the 3-0 score. They lost faceoffs. They lost their composure – Crosby yapping at the officials, Crosby jawing with Bruins behemoth Zdeno Chara, Malkin fighting Bruins star Patrice Bergeron. But they generated chances, hit posts and allowed fluky goals. Fine.
This was different. They were outcoached, outsmarted and outplayed. Their best players were at their worst.
Crosby had four giveaways – twice as many as the Bruins had as a team – and the Penguins had 12 altogether. Malkin was not a factor, let alone a difference-maker. Neither were Neal or Kunitz or Dupuis or Jarome Iginla, the future Hall of Famer who picked the Penguins and spurned the Bruins at the trade deadline.
Letang, a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, was on the ice for four goals. He turned over the puck in the Pittsburgh zone, leading to the Bruins’ second goal. He was one of the three Penguins players embarrassed as the Bruins completed a tic-tac-toe play on a 3-on-3 rush for their third goal. He has been on the ice for six of the Bruins’ nine goals in the series.
Tomas Vokoun gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, then two more. He got yanked for Marc-Andre Fleury, who made his first appearance since getting yanked in the first round. Fleury entered to rousing cheers – and did exactly what Vokoun had done. He gave up a goal on the first shot he faced, then two more.
If you’re Bylsma, what do you do now?
“It’s tough to evaluate, given the breakdowns and the type of scoring chances that they scored on for both goalies,” Bylsma said.
It doesn’t matter which goaltender Bylsma starts in Game 3 if the Penguins play like this.
Where is the team that smoked the Ottawa Senators in the second round, outscoring them 22-11 in five games? No, the Sens aren’t the Bruins. They were actually a better defensive team than the Bruins during the regular season.
“The reason why we got so many goals against Ottawa is because we played the right way,” Letang said. “We put the puck deep. We forechecked hard. And right now, I don’t know what’s going on. They clog the neutral zone. We can’t really get in the zone, and we get frustrated and try to make stuff happen, and it doesn’t work.”
Hell, where is the team that lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in that crazy first-round series last year? At least those Penguins could score while they screwed up defensively.
“Weren’t the Philly games, like, 8-5?” Crosby said. “I mean, I think at that point we probably did take for granted that we could score five. I don’t think this is the case here. I think this is a classic case tonight of trying to create things maybe when it’s not there and paying for it. We learned a tough lesson. We didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
[More: Bruins chase Pens goalie Tomas Vokoun in wild first period of Game 2]
The Penguins still have a chance. The other three members of the final four all have gone through something like this already. The Los Angeles Kings faced a 2-0 series deficit. The Chicago Blackhawks faced a 3-1 series deficit. The Bruins faced a three-goal deficit in the third period of a Game 7. All survived. When the Penguins won the Cup in 2009, they rallied from a 2-0 series deficit twice.
But the difference is, the Kings were going home down 2-0. The Blackhawks were going home down 3-1. The Bruins were at home trailing in the third. When the Penguins faced those 2-0 deficits in 2009, they were going home, too, and now they’re headed to Boston. They have won six straight there, but so what? They had won six straight over the Bruins overall before this.
This ain’t the regular season. This is the playoffs. And if the Penguins play below their ability when they have a (relatively) healthy Crosby and Malkin and loaded up at the trade deadline, it will be a wasted opportunity. It could bode badly for Bylsma. It will be a black mark on the players, particularly the leaders.
It starts with Sidney Crosby. Where does it end?
“When you play a certain way all year, you believe in the way you play,” Crosby said. “I think that gives you a lot of confidence. I think coming off a game like this, there should be no shortage of motivation, knowing the situation, knowing how tonight went. Guys have a lot of pride, a lot of character in here. I’m not worried about how we’re going to respond."
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