Sunday, 11 May 2014

The Impending Outcome

If there was a hot seat in the NHL coaching ranks right now, Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma has to be feeling it. The Penguins returned home for Game Five and were promptly handed a 5-1 defeat on home ice. The Penguins seemed none too worried as they went back to Madison Square Garden where the New York Rangers hung a 3-1 loss around their necks. For a team that has one of the most impressive lineups in terms of offensive capabilities, their bread-and-butter has suddenly gone sour as the Rangers have turned up the heat defensively. Dan Bylsma's job could be on the line tomorrow night along with the playoff hopes of the Steel City.

People will point to Sidney Crosby and exclaim, "He's got to put this team on his back!" in terms of carrying this team into the Eastern Conference Final. While I will agree with that to a degree, there are far other problems plaguing this Penguins squad right now beyond Crosby's scoring... or lack thereof.

Has anyone seen James Neal in these playoffs? Two goals and two assists are not the James Neal we saw playing all season. Neal is a vital contributor to the Penguins' offence, and he simply hasn't been effective. His 45 shots in the playoffs leads the team, but his lack of production is killing any offence on that second line.

Lee Stempniak, brought in to play more of a power forward role on Pittsburgh's top line, has found himself all over the lineup as Dan Bylsma looks for a place for him to play. His two goals and single assist are not indicative of his talent level, yet he's way down the scoring list for the Penguins. Sure, he's been used in defensive roles as well, but -4 isn't helping his cause for his defensive game either. Something's gotta give there: defence or offence.

The defensive pairings took a major hit when Brooks Orpik went down in the first series, and then was re-injured against the Rangers. Orpik isn't a scoring threat as much as he is a big body on the blue line that likes to throw hits and keeping players honest. Without him, though, it seems the Penguins have no one to keep the Rangers in check as they criss-cross through the zone. Orpik's presence has been missed.

The one guy who should feel the heat in this seventh game, though, is head coach Dan Bylsma. Bylsma hasn't out-coached anyone in these playoffs. He should consider himself lucky that he survived the Columbus Blue Jackets after his mentor, Todd Richards, showed how a hard-working team could beat a team dripping with natural talent. Richards got Brandon Dubinsky to blanket Sidney Crosby for the majority of the series. Richards had Jack Johnson jumping into plays and becoming an offensive force as a roving defenceman. Richards' Blue Jackets team should have been a massive underdog, but hard work and determination pushed the Penguins to play harder for their own self-preservation.

The Penguins appeared to have the Rangers' number in the second round as they built a commanding 3-1 lead, but Tuesday night's Game Seven has all sorts of implications on it now that the Penguins have been unable to close the deal. The last two games that the Penguins have played have been against a desperate Rangers team that has literally done everything it took to win. They finished checks, they blocked shots, they sacrificed bodies, and they scored goals. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault hasn't necessarily out-coached Bylsma in this series, but he has certainly rallied his troops into forcing this series into a one-game, winner-takes-all game.

In saying this, Bylsma needs to find a way for his superstars to break free on Tuesday. Malkin and Jokinen have been doing the vast majority of scoring for the Penguins, but guys like Crosby, Neal, Stempniak, and Kunitz would certainly help the cause of they could find the twine a little more often. The Penguins' blue line needs to be more physical with the speedy Rangers' forwards to slow them down while doing all they can to clear the crease, pin bodies against the boards, and play good defensive positioning. Marc-Andre Fleury - who hasn't been a negative in a while - needs to make routine saves and toss in a couple of spectacular stops for good measure.

If the Penguins are eliminated Tuesday, I would have no problems seeing Dan Bylsma being replaced, especially with the gluttony of excellent coaches looking for work right now. Bylsma, however, controls his own destiny. If he actually decides to coach his talent-heavy squad, he may just survive this potential implosion in Pittsburgh.

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice!

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