Pittsburgh Penguins can’t afford to ignore playoff failures


Jun 5, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik (44) and Pittsburgh Penguins left wing James Neal (18) reacts to being swept by the Boston Bruins in game four of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden. The Boston Bruins won 1-0. Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Something’s amiss in Pittsburgh Penguins land.

That much is certain after a fourth consecutive playoff disappointment. Whether you look at the confounding no-show in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference final, or a general failure to do what they do best – score – throughout their inexplicable four-game loss to the Boston Bruins, 2013 joins a growing list of troubling postseasons for the perennial favorites.

Since the 2009 Stanley Cup victory, capping the Penguins’ second of back-to-back trips to the Final, each spring has contained mystifying collapses, each of which arguably cost them a series: Game 7 vs. Montreal in 2010 (5-2 loss), Game 5 vs. Tampa Bay in 2011 (8-2), Games 1-3 vs. Philadelphia in 2012 (combined 20 goals allowed) and Game 2 vs. Boston this year (6-1).

Additionally, Pittsburgh was on the verge of a third straight first-round loss this year before a switch to Tomas Vokoun in goal helped Dan Bylsma’s bunch get its act together. Surviving that, the Pens still couldn’t avoid another giveaway game against Boston, a lapse that put them in a difficult spot against a very good team.

The common denominator in the recent sad springs is Bylsma. We’ve already had debates on this website arguing in favor of a coaching change or against it, but either way, the matter needs to be scrutinized. Overreaction usually leads down a rough road, but under-reaction can be just as dangerous. Sticking with the status quo just for the sake of stability would be the absolute wrong move.

Jun 7, 2013; Boston, MA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins right wing Beau Bennett (19) shakes hands with Boston Bruins right wing Jaromir Jagr (68) after Boston defeated Pittsburgh in game four of the Eastern Conference finals of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Michael Ivins-USA TODAY Sports

While I give Bylsma full credit for righting a sinking ship and piloting it to ultimate victory in 2009, the playoff results have been disturbing in every year he’s had control all the way through. Even in 2011, when long-term injuries sidelined Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins had a 3-1 series lead against Tampa Bay before losing the last three games. That qualifies as a minus in my grade book.

Bylsma isn’t alone in shouldering blame. The highest-scoring team in hockey somehow lost its finishing touch against Boston despite creating plenty of chances in three of the four games. That’ll leave you scratching your head for months and years to come.

Plus, all four players general manager Ray Shero acquired near the trade deadline ended up in reduced roles by the time the playoffs wrapped up. Excepting Jussi Jokinen, who was a healthy scratch for much of the postseason, Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray looked more like sluggish liabilities than valued contributors against the Bruins.

That trio of thirtysomethings had their moments with the Penguins, but by the end they seemed like poor fits in Bylsma’s preferred up-tempo style of play. Perhaps Shero looks back at those additions with a tinge of regret, as his team was near the end of a 15-game winning streak when he made the moves.

Finally, players like Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury, previously considered to be key cogs in the Penguins machine, saw their value drop considerably in these playoffs. Shero and the rest of the hockey operations staff may have to move on from Nos. 58 and 29, whether using amnesty buyouts or looking into offseason deals.

Changes are in the offing for the Penguins, and they should be. Regular-season success is well and good, but this team’s expectations go beyond that. By that measure, they have been underachievers.