If the Pittsburgh Penguins lose in Game 7 on Tuesday night, the blame will fall on this team like acid rain, saturating any number of underperformers that squandered a 3-1 series lead against the New York Rangers and never looked like the division champions they were in the regular season.
Sidney Crosby will be criticized for the worst postseason of his life, before it’s explained away by an injury or exhaustion from carrying this team through a Hart Trophy season or the absence of Pascal Dupuis (remember him?). If you can, in fact, explain away one goal in 17 playoff games over the last two seasons.
Marc-Andre Fleury will be criticized for being better but not good enough, reverting to his regrettable form in Games 5 and 6 while being humbled by Henrik Lundqvist. (Can he make it a fourth straight game with a save percentage under .900?)
Ray Shero will be criticized for assembling a team couldn’t get it done, lacking the kind of quality depth at forward that champions like Boston, Chicago and Los Angeles boast. The Montreal Canadiens are in a Game 7 thanks to their deadline acquisition, Thomas Vanek, and his Game 6 performance. The Pittsburgh Penguins have had the pleasure of watching Lee Stempniak fail to tally a point in five straight games against the Rangers.
They’ll be criticized, but none will truly pay for this failure – unless it’s decided the Fleury can’t return between the pipes at that price tag or with that playoff record.
Dan Bylsma, however, will be criticized, and pay for this failure with his job.
If his seat were any hotter it’d be re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. He’s being out-coached again by Alain Vigneault, as he’s been by everyone from Claude Julien to Peter Laviolette to Guy Boucher in the past. (And, most famously, Mike Babcock in February.) His usual desperation tactic – putting Evgeni Malkin with Sidney Crosby – failed to get his captain going and broke the momentum of his second best player’s offense.
If he loses Game 7, Bylsma will be 27-27 in the playoffs since winning the Stanley Cup way back in 2009. His teams will fall to 1-6 in elimination games on home ice. It will be yet another series in which the Penguins were ousted by a lower seed.
We imagine the Penguins fancy themselves as better than average.
But if the Penguins lose tonight, it will be the fifth consecutive year they will have been eliminated from the playoffs by a lower seed. They will be just 4-5 in postseason series since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 under Bylsma. This elimination, should it happen, will hurt more than most because the Penguins had what seemed to be a secure 3-1 series edge.
No ownership can be expected to put up with that underachievement. Bylsma will have to go if the Penguins lose tonight even though he has a contract for two more seasons.
Rob Rossi reports that Bylsma and two of his assistants that aren’t named Jacques Martin were given extensions last summer, with Bylsma earning $2 million annually.
His salary has gone up but the returns have been diminishing. Yes, his coaching job in the regular season should be lauded, as he helped get this Penguins team through incredible man-game losses to the top of the Metropolitan Division. Yes, the success he’s had in the first 82 games and in last year’s postseason – making the conference final – should make any general manager hesitant to expel the coach.
But his performance in the postseason hasn't matched those achievements. And, frankly, his regular seasons speaks to some disturbing trends: In a league where puck possession is king, the Penguins' corsi numbers in 2013-14 and 2012-13 were mediocre.
Should one game determine the fate of a coach? In Bylsma’s case, it might: Win and it’s a second straight conference finals appearance; lose, and the Penguins will have allowed an underdog to eliminate them after blowing three chances to do so themselves.
He’ll be seen as a fall guy, a sacrificial lamb hoisted onto the altar while his players and general manager avoid their reckoning. His backers in the media will immediately fantasy-cast him as the new head coach in Vancouver or Carolina or even Washington – oh, now that would be perverse.
He’s earned that pass by being one of the truly outstanding conversationalists in the game, and a charismatic and likeable guy. Ever since he took the Penguins to the Cup as an unknown AHL coach, he’s been someone you’ve rooted for. That hardly changed in the Sochi aftermath: We were in the minority of voices Olympic torching his effort, as most of the media downplayed his coaching miscues in favor of chastising the players’ bronze medal game embarrassment.
He’s a players’ coach, and the players like him. But let’s be real here: The Chicago Blackhawks have two Stanley Cups. The Boston Bruins have one and played for another. These are the elite teams with whom the Penguins want to be compared, but they haven’t earned the right to be in that conversation based on their postseason failures.
If the Penguins falter again in the postseason, the blame should be shared by Crosby, Fleury, the forwards who underperformed and Shero, the man who’s presided over the exodus of talent from his forward group.
But something has to change. Bylsma’s been given five years. He’s been given a veteran assistant coach. He’s been given leeway when he’s gotten schooled in series.
If the Penguins lose Game 7, one assumes he’ll be given one more thing: a cardboard box in which to pack up his vacated office.
But if they win, he’s eight away from a Cup.
Such is sports.
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