One of the most indelible moments in last spring’s Eastern Conference final series against Boston was the sight of Pittsburgh Penguins stars Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby losing their composure during a Game 1 loss.
The two high-scoring centers, who combined for zero points in the four-game defeat, took exception to Boston’s physical play in the series opener, with their frustration manifesting in different ways. Malkin fought Bruins center Patrice Bergeron, while Crosby traded physical and verbal barbs with goalie Tuukka Rask and defenseman Zdeno Chara.
That outburst hearkened back to the Penguins’ 2012 first-round loss to Philadelphia, when Crosby, Malkin, Kris Letang and James Neal, among others, allowed the Flyers to exasperate them. Saturday’s 3-2 loss to Montreal contained minor degrees of the same nonsense, although Crosby and Co. did a commendable job ignoring the provocations of Canadiens defenseman P.K. Subban and his teammates.
Or did they? Crosby was noticeably jawing with Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec near the end of the game and Plekanec told the media afterward that “everyone knows” the Penguins can be compromised by engaging them in extracurricular activities.
With the Penguins in Boston for a Monday night faceoff, it seems worth it to address this so-called “weakness.” While the coaching staff has gone to great lengths – including the hiring of Jacques Martin – to make the team more likely to succeed in tight, low-scoring games, helping the Penguins develop a thicker skin isn’t as simple as revamping Xs and Os.
Perhaps most concerning about Pittsburgh’s overly emotional responses to challenges is that guys like Crosby and Malkin are usually involved. Yes, that’s somewhat due to the fact that they’re targeted more by the opposition, but it sends a poor example for the rest of the team. If the stars can indulge themselves in retribution, everybody has carte blanche to do so.
There’s only so much coach Dan Bylsma can do. Many of the Penguins’ key players are still in their mid-20s, but most are veterans of several NHL seasons. Maturation occurs at different speeds for different people, but Pittsburgh would be better served by their high-profile guys maintaining an even keel in pressurized situations.
Notes: With Beau Bennett being placed on the injured reserve, the top line of Crosby, Pascal Dupuis and Chris Kunitz was together for Monday’s morning skate at Boston’s TD Garden. Jussi Jokinen was alongside Malkin and Neal, while Matt D’Agostini skated on the third line and recent call-up Zach Sill was on the fourth unit…Malkin was named the NHL’s No. 1 star of last week for his seven-assist, eight-point performance in four games. He leads the league in assists with 22 and has scored at least a point in 10 of his last 11 games…Marc-Andre Fleury is expected to be in goal for the 7 p.m. faceoff.