What Is Wrong With The Pittsburgh Penguins?

Photo Credit: (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

“Save something, I’m giving up on you…” Photo Credit: (Kirk Irwin/Getty Images)

We all know that the Pittsburgh Penguins are a far from perfect team, especially in the post season… They have a lot of glaring faults in their game. So let’s start off like crazy people out of the gate just to get it out of the way and talk about some of those problems.

What went wrong for the Pens in game four besides Marc-Andre Fleury’s gaffs?

Andy Hughes (@PensNation_Andy): There were a ton of problems besides Fleury’s mistakes. It seemed like the Penguins got too comfortable with a 3-0 lead, which seems to be a trend recently. They got outplayed badly after they gained that three goal lead and allowed Columbus to get back in to the game, just like they did in Game 2. You can’t do that in the playoffs. They took bad penalties again as well. You’re asking for trouble if you take too many penalties in the postseason. The Penguins also continue to have trouble getting the puck out of their zone. Clearly, there are big issues that don’t deal with Fleury.

Annie Shean (@JustPuckIt): Nothing irritates me more than a team that refuses to play three periods of hockey. Yes it’s a long season, your bodies are beat up, and your energy drains much faster than at the beginning of the season – but you can not take your foot off the gas pedal in the playoffs. As soon as the Penguins had that 3-0 lead the momentum shifted in that game. Not because the Jackets got their butts in gear, but because the Pens went into ‘la la land’ and allowed themselves to be outplayed yet again. I know controlling all 60 minutes of hockey is impossible, but you still need to make an effort to try. I feel that If this team can focus and play with the same desire that the jackets have for the next two games, they will take this series and move onto the next round.

Brian Metzer (@Brian_Metzer): Well, where should we start? It seemed like the Penguins were in full control when they were up 3-0 including a shorthanded goal by Craig Adams, but then it was like they just decided that three goals were enough. There just wasn’t enough offensive pushback, there was no defensive net front presence — yes that exists too — and they started to get outworked. The Columbus forwards have been demonizing the Penguins defensemen with lots of physicality and it is looking a lot like what the Penguins did to the Ottawa Senators back in 2008. The Sens D were looking over their shoulders when they went back for pucks and started to turn them over. Luckily I think this Pens team is still more talented and can overcome that situation, but they are losing faceoffs often, their special teams are struggling and the Jackets are looking like the faster team, stir in the fact that the stars on this team just aren’t producing and the ingredients for disaster are gathering in the shopping cart.

Ryan Wilson (@GunnerStaal): Score effects.  Pittsburgh sat back on their lead way too early.  The Penguins were crushed in the 2nd period because they were content on trying to sit on their cushy 3 goal lead.  Instead of trying to drive play, they were content on sticking with “safe” hockey when in reality it is not safe at all.  Taking your foot off the gas pedal is never a good idea.  There is way more reward than risk when maintaining aggressiveness.  All coaches in the NHL reward “safe” play when teams have the lead, this dumbs down the impact highly skilled players have (which the Penguins have more of than CBJ). This mindset negates one of Pittsburgh’s big advantages.

This is not a problem exclusive to the Penguins, every team is guilty of it.  The first team that breaks this habit will have an incredible advantage over other teams.  Hard to break human nature though.

The Pens were doing a rather good job of freezing out the Columbus Blue Jackets out in the final ten minutes of Game Four. Does Dan Bylsma deserve more credit for how he has coached this series?

Andy Hughes: Bylsma has done a good job in this series, in my opinion. I thought Game 1 was one of his best games in a while as far as adjustments go. I would like to see the Letang-Scuderi pairing broken up again though. I understand that was the plan in the beginning of the season, but this is a much different Scuderi than the 2009 one. The Penguins did a great job defending the Blue Jackers during the last ten minutes of Game 4. That was encouraging to see because it was a different look for the team. The more looks you can give the opposing team, the better. Bylsma really took control of the team during that timeout in Game 3 too. He looked angry and he sent the team a message when they needed one. Bylsma also questioned the efforts of his team yesterday, which is something we don’t see a lot. I thbi he realizes that he is coaching for his career with Pittsburgh.

Annie Shean: There have been some high and low points of this series for everyone, including Bylsma. We are not in the locker room or on the bench experiencing what he is saying to the team, so as fans we can only judge Bylsma by what happens (or doesn’t happen) on the ice. When you look at the series so far he has been less stubborn, making changes to lines and d pairings when things were not clicking. However, some approaches seem to be short lived, such as in game two he made an effort to put Crosby out against other lines to avoid Dubinsky which only lasted for the first ten minutes of play. In my opinion he’s sitting even on the fence, but that the team’s reaction in game five will have a strong effect on his ‘coaching legacy’ and employment at the end of this season.

Brian Metzer: Honestly, I think Dan Bylsma has done a decent job in the series. He made some decisions that moved Beau Bennett to the third line, Brian Gibbons to the first and has not looked like a deer in head lights. However, he hasn’t worked to get Sidney Crosby away from Brandon Dubinsky, he hasn’t worked to get Evgeni Malkin away from the Anisimov unit all that often either. While I respect the 10 minute shutdown, which showed that they are more than capable of doing it, the team still looks to be a bit unprepared at times in my estimation. I think Dan Bylsma is a very good hockey coach, but eventually you start to live up to the wrong hype. Too many big games being lost and it is going to be tough to overcome a rough showing against the Blue Jackets, even with the lack of depth this team has.

Ryan Wilson: I don’t believe that Bylsma has coached a bad series so far.  His team has been very productive at even strength outside of Game 4.  His power play had issues with both scoring and giving up shorthanded goals and he made changes to the personnel groupings (namely taking Letang off of it and moving to 2 defensemen).  Something he was not as willing to do last year.

His team was less than a half minute away from taking a commanding 3-1 series lead without Crosby or Malkin scoring a goal, this on a team that has a perceived lack of forward depth.  That isn’t to say he hasn’t made some errors, he did have Rob Scuderi on the ice when the Bue Jackets scored the tying goal in Game 4 and the PK setup (more on that later) leaves a lot to be desired.

Fleury has had highs and lows in this series. For much of it, he has been the Penguins best player, but he has also proven to be the costliest. The lows have been really bad… Have the lows completely overshadowed the bright spots?

Andy Hughes: I don’t think so. The Game 4 disaster was obviously terrible, but he has  been the Penguins’ most consistent player in the postseason. There have been times where he has rebounded nicely after bad starts in this series. In Game 3, he have up those 2 early goals and then played well for the rest of the game. The old Fleury may have gotten rattled a bit after that. It was refreshing to see him play a great game and lead his team to victory that night. Without him, Pittsburgh may be down 3-1.

Annie Shean: A goaltender can play their guts out making the sickest saves ever, but the second they let in a bad goal everyone places the blame solely on them. Unfortunately it seems like there is a very vocal majority of people focusing on the negatives of the team. Right now all people remember are that he mishandled the puck very late in the third and the soft overtime goal he let in, rather than the 42 shots he stopped (verses Bobrovsky’s 22) and how he kept the Pens in this series.

Most call me a ‘goalie sympathizer’, but I will be the first to fully admit that his angle was off for the Foligno goal and he took a risk leaving the crease that horribly backfired. Did he majorly attribute to the loss of game four, yes. But I ask people to remember this: while your goaltender is an important piece and the last line of defense, they still need support from the five players in front of them the entire game. It takes a team to win, and a team to lose.

Brian Metzer: Well, his lows are pretty huge after Game 4, but really I think he was the Penguins best player through 3.5 of the games. So I can’t say that his lows have overshadowed his highs. The numbers didn’t speak in his favor, but he was playing with a swagger and confidence that wasn’t evident in his game since the Cup run of 2009. While you can’t do what he did late in Game 4 and expect to be praised for it, he was pretty amazing for 59:36 and was pretty good for the almost three full games before it. His only rough patch came during the opening minutes of Game 3, but he quickly turned that around and gave his team a chance to win in each game. Just wish he had made a better decision late in Game 4.

Ryan Wilson: Yes.  His lows are that low.  His lows are so far below the NHL standard for goaltending that I believe it has a psychological impact on the team.  It is incredibly draining as a player to know that you could be playing perfect hockey and still have goals going in the net that defy logic.  What more could you ask of the Penguins in Game 4’s 3rd period?  They held a desperate, aggressive Blue Jackets team to 1 shot in 14 minutes.

The players will say the right things publicly but I can’t think too many of the guys in the locker room truly have confidence in Marc Andre Fleury, and why should they?

I think that Fleury has come up short for so many years in the playoffs that people have redefined what their standard of goaltending is in Pittsburgh.  Average goaltending shouldn’t be the ceiling, hoping for your goaltender to not make insanely huge gaffes at incredibly inopportune moments should not be the norm.

Then there is the whole cap hit dynamic that nobody ever really touches on, what do the Penguins really get for Fleury’s 5M salary cap hit?  There are plenty of cheaper options that can get you through a regular season, why pay a premium for that?  Its pretty clear the playoffs are mental hurdle that Fleury cannot conquer.

Per Adam Gretz (@AGretz) “In 12 postseasons between Juniors, AHL and NHL, MAF has finished with a SV% over .900 3 times. Over .910 just once”  Good grief.

Can Marc-Andre Fleury bounce back from his shaky ending in game four to carry the Penguins to a series win?

Andy Hughes: Yes, I believe so. If you would have asked me that question last year, I probably would have said no. After seeing the sports psychologist and getting Mike Bales, we have seen a different Fleury this year. He looks much more calm in net and also seems to be different in the locker room after games. It was nice to hear him say how the series is 2-2 and that the Penguins have 2 home games left. He’s right. Sure, he made bad mistakes in Game 4, but he realizes that the team still has a good chance of winning this series. I’m sure he’s motivated to win and wants to show people that he’s different now. He has worked hard this season and he’s not ready to back down yet.

Annie Shean: This may sound crazy, but I call a tendy’s mental state “Goalie Feng Shui.” It’s a delicate balance of skill, confidence, emotion, and instinct. When all these elements align you have a fantastic game, but if any of those areas falter you can fail, and fail miserably. Could the Fleury we remember from last year shake this off and move on? No. However, I do have hope that the ‘reinvented’ Fleury this year has the power to pull himself up by his bootstraps to keep himself in the lineup and the pucks out of the cage. He has played extremely well this season, and in the series – but it’s up to him to prove that he can overcome adversity and that he can turn things around.

However I will also play the other side and state that if he starts to look shaky in the first period of game five they do need to pull him; not just for the teams sake but for his before things snowball. If he’s lacking confidence in his play and begins to over-analyzing rather than rely on instinct that’s far too dangerous to ignore given his past history combined with the skill of this Jackets team.

Brian Metzer:  I interviewed Paul Steigerwald on my Penguins Live show Thursday afternoon and he summed this up best, “Think of it this way, say you were doing a radio show and you said something stupid that was bothering you. You messed up really bad. Are you never going to do it again? No, you are maybe going to be a bit more careful, but you are going to get back out there and do it again. This guy has stopped a lot of pucks since he first strapped on pads, you think he’s going to crumble because of this? No… “ Now, that said, I personally am a bit worried about what we’re going to see in Game 5 just based on the fact that Fleury gave up a fairly soft goal to Nick Foligno right after the end of regulation gaffe, but his own words post game reassured me a bit and it seems that his head is on straight. I can’t tell you the last time I heard Fleury sound as sure and confident of himself after a gaffe like that. He felt that he had a good game, he had allowed only two goals on 40 shots prior to the bad things that happened and he seemed to be feeding on the good. I think he’ll be ok. As I have said since moment one of this series, he just has to make sure he isn’t the reason they lose, if and when that happens. So far, he is in the conversation based on a gaffe and an OT winner. He can get back to being one of their best players and it starts Saturday.

Ryan Wilson:  I think the Penguins can still beat the Blue Jackets in this series but I don’t think Fleury will be carrying the team to victory.  I said before the series started that Fleury would only have to be average for the team to win, somewhere in the .910-.915% save percentage window.  Right now he is only at .903%.  Fortunately for the Penguins Sergei Bobrovsky has an even lower save percentage of .900%.

The blunder behind the net and the weak goal by Foligno have received the headlines but the alarming moment for me was how shaky Fleury looked right before the Foligno goal where he had no idea where the puck was and looked behind him.  That doesn’t strike me as a guy who is bouncing back after a blunder.

Fleury may be able to get the Penguins through round 1 playing at this level but I have serious doubts moving forward.

What do the Pens need to do in order to give Flower  a confidence boost after the last game?

Andy Hughes: Normally I would say score some early goals, but taking a 3-1 lead seems like a bad idea in this series! I think Pittsburgh needs to play better defense in front of Fleury in order to give him confidence. It’s not fun seeing his defensemen turn the puck over left and right. The Penguins also need to get the puck out of their own zone quickly too. They are losing so many puck battles and just can’t get the puck out of there. It’s frustrating. Making some key saves early in the game will also help Fleury’s confidence.

Annie Shean: The goalie in me is going to come out on this one again. If your team is vocal about standing behind you that is only half the battle, they also need to support you on the ice. First off you never want to react from a loss by ‘coddling’ your goaltender, from personal experience that actually makes us lose confidence in ourselves. Just do your job as a team on the ice; have a confident forecheck and carry the puck out of ‘danger’, cover your man, and for pete’s sake please clear the crease. By doing that you’ll allow your goaltender to focus on making the necessary saves instead of over analyzing and freaking out every time the puck enters the zone.

Brian Metzer: How about getting a couple defensemen to clear the front of his net. If you look back to the footage of the first goal the Blue Jackets scored in Game 4, it shows Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin and several teammates more focused on blocking shots and not worrying about Boone Jenner standing right in front of Fleury. Eventually he tipped in a goal and showed yet again that you can pretty much set up a lemonade stand in front of the Penguins net. Clear that area, limit second and third opportunities and I think you set MAF up for success.

Ryan Wilson: I think the Penguins skaters just need to focus on what they can control.  Playing smart, assertive, and disciplined.  Quite frankly I don’t think the Penguins should have to worry about giving Fleury a confidence boost, if that is something that is necessary, then Zatkoff or Vokoun should be getting the nod.  It’s the NHL, Fleury’s confidence shouldn’t be a focal point, if he isn’t confident move on to the next guy.  You don’t have time for a guy to find himself in the NHL playoffs.

Have the Penguins stars done enough so far in the series?

Andy Hughes: No, they have not. Crosby and Malkin have not scored a postseason goal in a long time and that needs to change quickly. They have had some flashes of brilliance at times, but it hasn’t been lasting very long. It’s a shame because Pittsburgh is getting a ton of secondary scoring, just like they did in 2009. We haven’t really seen either superstar take over a series since then. I remember tweeting last year that Douglas Murray had more playoff goals than Crosby and Malkin at one point. Now the likes of Brooks Orpik and Craig Adams have more. That can’t continue. Malkin did not have a single shot last game. That’s bad. Something obviously needs to change. Letang also hasn’t looked very good in this series. He has taken some penalties and committed some turnovers. Let’s hope we see the stars shine soon or else their legacies may take a hit. I’m not saying they have been terrible. They have been doing some good things, but they have to produce. That’s their main job.

Annie Shean: Wait, We have stars playing on this team? Personally I feel like Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, and Neal have been playing well for at least one period of hockey each game, but there again are three periods. In game four they came out flying with a strong forecheck and were able to get onto the board quickly, but when we had a substantial lead it seemed as if they removed their foot from the gas pedal and expected to coast till the end of the game. I don’t know if it’s exhaustion or injuries, but they have looked extremely out of place at times during this series. They really do need to get their heads straight in order for this team to be successful, no matter how lucky we’ve been with secondary scoring.

Brian Metzer: I don’t think so. I mean, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang are still looking for their first goals. You can also mix in James Neal and Chris Kunitz, who both got on the board in Game 4, but had been pretty quiet prior to that. This is a legacy type of postseason for this team, many narratives are being written about guys who vanish in the big game. Guys who can’t score goals when it counts. It is only a matter of time before the Stars break through, but it has been a very slow progression and they are running out of time. Lots of work left out there for the Penguins Elite and I am not talking about the team’s developmental program.

Ryan Wilson: This is not as black and white as some people would like to believe.  Yes, both Sid and Geno are without a goal.  But no, they are not both playing bad hockey right now.  Both players have been highly effective at even strength and are still driving the play toward the Blue Jackets goal.  Star players in hockey are not always rewarded with tangible results that show up in a boxscore.  I have a hard time believing that they are “struggling” when Malkin is out for 58.1% of all shot attempts at even strength and Crosby is at 57.9%.  Those are great numbers.  The flow of play is consistently heading towards the Columbus end when they are on the ice.

You know the standards are high when each player has 4 points in 4 games and the discussion is how bad they have been.

I believe if Crosby and Malkin continue to play at the level they are at right now they will be rewarded with the goals that have been eluding them so far in the playoffs.

What has been the biggest strength thus far for the Pens?

Andy Hughes: Secondary scoring. It has been awesome to see guys like Adams, Orpik, Stempniak and Sutter score goals in this series. To win a Stanley Cup, you need that. It takes a full team to win this time of the year. Mark Eaton had some big goals in 2009 and so did many other defensemen/role players. Martin and Niskanen have been fantastic as well this series as far as points go.

Annie Shean: Remember that time when Adams skated right in and scored a shorthanded goal, and who would have actually guessed on the “Pens Predictor” that Orpik would get the first goal of game three? Not I, but in the invisible presence of Crosby/Malkin our secondary players have moved up to the front lines and helped to keep this team ship from sinking in the series. As long as players such as Niskanen, Martin, Sutter, Stempniak, and Gibbons (if he can come back) can continue to play as strongly as they have this series there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Brian Metzer: Secondary scoring. Isn’t it funny to be able to say that, but it is true. Especially from the blue line, where Paul Martin has rolled up 8 assists in four games and Matt Niskanen has two goals and three assists. That was one area that was thought to be a big time deficiency for this team and suddenly it is rolling just when they need it too. Brian Gibbons, Brandon Sutter, and Jussi Jokinen all have two goals, while Brook Orpik, Lee Stempniak, and Craig Adams all have one each. Just imagine where this team would be if they were getting contributions from up and down the lineup.

Ryan Wilson: Secondary scoring.  If you had told me that secondary scoring was going to be a strength for the Penguins in the playoffs 2 weeks ago, I would have laughed at you.

The reality is that it has indeed been a strength.  Paul Martin has 8 points and leads the NHL in playoff scoring right now and Matt Niskanen is 2nd on the team with 5 points.  Beau Bennett has 4 points in 4 games.  Jussi Jokinen, Brian Gibbons, and Brandon Sutter each have two goals.  That has been a great surprise for the Penguins. Even Craig Adams has a shorthanded goal!

What has been the Pens biggest weakness?

Andy Hughes: This is an easy one. Their special teams units have been…well not very special. Their power play just isn’t working. They are trying to do too much and seem to be forcing plays a bit. They should try to do what they did in Game 3. Get traffic in front of the net and see what happens. Simplify it a bit. The PK has been rough for a while now. In 2009, I remember seeing the Penguins have some incredible shifts on the PK. They would clear the puck multiple times and wouldn’t let the opposing team do much of anything with the man advantage. I’m nervous everytime the PK unit comes on the ice now. They have a hard time getting it out of their own zone and just don’t look too effective out there.

Annie Shean: While the stars haven’t particularly been lighting mups on fire and the PK has slipped, I have to go with the power play unit. The group seems so predictable and stale; pass from D to the forward along the same wall, cross ice pass to D, D takes shot, goalie covers. While I love it when Nisky rips the shot from the blue line, the forwards on the ice need to make a legitimate effort to crash the net or take the hard shot from the side when they have a clear lane instead of playing tic-tac-toe. Because this has become a special teams series, you need to take full advantage of all those opportunities to bolster and retain the lead.

Brian Metzer: Special teams. Both the power play and the penalty kill were huge in sparking the Penguins’ regular season success. The PK is clicking at just 75 percent after killing of 85 percent of opposing penalties during the regular season and the power play has slipped to just 18 percent after scoring at over 23 percent regular season.

Ryan Wilson: Penalty kill.  Other than Brian Gibbons shorthanded goal there hasn’t really haven’t been  too many positive things to talk about.  Pittsburgh’s penalty kill looks like it should be a strength on the surface.  They finished the regular season 5th overall in the NHL at 85.0%, but this unit has been in a free fall ever since the Olympics.

The Penguins PK has their forwards do a lot of skating once the opposition’s power play is set up, unfortunately for the Penguins 3 of the forwards they use consistently use on the PK are not fleet of foot (Adams, Glass, Sutter).  Only Brian Gibbons has looked good playing within this PK system in the past month and that is because he is really fast.  Watch how many times Craig Adams sprints up to the defenseman and over commits just in time for the puck to be moved away, he then has to circle back and skate really hard to the next spot where he will be a day late and a dollar short.  Stop with the uber aggressive skating PK setup that doesn’t mix well with the kind of players on the PK unit.  Get back to the basics and get in the shooting lanes.  Invite Columbus to stay on the perimeter.  Simple is better.

The Penguins have also gotten into the habit of letting opposition forwards screen Fleury in front unmolested.  This is a disaster waiting to happen.  Fleury is not known for being a “blocker” kind of goalie where he makes himself big and lets the puck hit him.  This is the kind of goalie you are asking him to be when you consistently allow the other team to screen him.  This entire penalty kill does not play to the strengths of the players on the ice.

The numbers show things are not working.  Right now the Penguins playoff PK sits at 75.0%.  Only Montreal and Detroit have been worse.

Columbus has played better than many have expected. Has your prediction for the series changed based off what you have seen?

Andy Hughes: I had Pens in 5, so my prediction is impossible now. Columbus has been impressive so far. They’ve definitely out worked the Penguins and I don’t expect that to change. I still think Pittsburgh takes the series though. I’ll say 6 games.

Annie Shean: My initial prediction was Pens in 6 so I am not surprised going into game five tied 2-2. I didn’t expect the Jackets to roll over and let the pens win in four, you could tell they hand a very strong hunger to win this series. The only thing that may change in my mind now is that we are teetering on the edge of a possible panic-driven game seven, #BecauseItsTheCup

Brian Metzer: Not as of yet. I thought the series had a the chance to go 6 games and I am sticking to that. The Jackets are a much better team than they were given credit for, but they are a hard-working, blue collar team, and that always seems to be enough this time to make things interesting.

Ryan Wilson: Fleury is doing his best to try and change my outlook but even with him looking like a complete yard sale in Game 4 the Penguins are still in a good spot.  Pittsburgh is in a best of 3 series with their star players playing well with no tangible results.  Law of averages is on the Penguins side.  Dan Bylsma rarely calls out the big dogs publicly, but he did yesterday.   The thing that makes generational players so great is that they have egos, they have personal pride.  They have been called out, watch that pride take over.

A big thank you to Andy (@PensNation_Andy), Annie (@JustPuckIt), Brian (@Brian_Metzer) and Ryan (@GunnerStaal) for being a part of this discussion. Make sure to follow each of them.