Yesterday I fulfilled a great need to gnash my teeth publicly by giving air to my great disappointment in the Penguins performance in the Eastern Conference Final. It was't reporting, it was venting by way of synopsis. Stating the obvious is every writer's starting point ... I just didn't bother deleting it.
Today I would like to talk about what went wrong, how the Pens happened to fall so flat, so fast, so spectacularly. Surely no one in all of hockey could have predicted such a thing. Sure there were rumblings, mostly from fans of other teams, that their defense was suspect, their goal tending outright weak, their chemistry wounded and their star forwards made of glass. Frankly, aside from the chemistry issue, I don't believe any of those concerns were the problem.
To grab the longest thread, I think the Pens failed due to inadequate coaching. This is the middle of the tapestry, you understand ... many threads lead into it and many threads lead out of it. In fact, in most sports, discounting bad luck (even of the snakebit variety the Pens pulled from the grab bag), problems can be traced to one of two things: roster or coaching.
Stubborn as it might seem, I refuse to consider it a roster problem. The pieces were all there. And one needs to remember, these are premier pieces. Elite players at the top of their game and in peak condition combined with effective, efficient role players and even the odd past his prime but still smart as hell rental. Even when Marc Andre Fleury crashed and burned, a piece was there to step in who proved to be even better and steadier than the piece he replaced. No, this was not roster. I dare anyone to dispute this with a cogent argument that does not include the words "crybaby".
Either the coach lost the room or the coach's system was inadequate to the task in one way or another. Let's assume it was a little of both since the former would follow from the latter.
Breaking that down into more bite-sized pieces takes just a few strokes of the pen, or taps at the keyboard, as it were.
Whatever chemistry existed when they were tearing up the league in the regular season had been so tampered with and endlessly adjusted that there was little of it left to draw upon and when they tried to, they discovered it was covered in a thin film of rust.
The transition game failed and took the offense with it.
The superstars all decided to win it themselves.
There was no backup goalie and everyone, from the fans to the opponents to the mascots, knew it. What little thread they had been dangling by broke and the transition game got worse, the superstars tried harder and the coach ...
Yes, the coach. What exactly did he do? He failed to make adjustments, is what he did. And this, if I had only one reason to pick, one place to shoot all the blame, I would send it here. The coach failed to adjust his system - or had built a system that could not be adjusted ... and the Conference Final is not a place to create a new one.
I wasn't on the bench or in the locker room so all I have is the ample-enough evidence that the coach did nothing. I saw no changes in game strategy beyond a few anemic line changes here and there, I saw no plays that were not the same ones. I saw heads hitting walls ... over and over and over. I saw Crosby out there dancing the dance of the damned, trying to win it himself on one helmetless shift for the ages, a whirling dervish who was unable, for all his skill and determination, to pot one behind Rask. I saw Malkin, at his mad scientist best, twisting and turning, his long arm extended by holding his stick at the tip, tipped and turned by a pair of Bruins defensemen who saw him coming a mile away.
This was not a series lost by apathy or lack of effort. None of the players gave up or resigned themselves to defeat. No one pulled an Ovechkin and glided into backchecks or didn't bother forechecking. Even Crosby and Malkin, not known for their two-way play, made defensive efforts. You know, when they were not trying to stick handle through the neutral zone, tripping over the blue line or hitting goal posts. I watched the frustration mount from game to game, tearing away at the talent like an animal at raw flesh. You knew, or should have, from the ending bell of game two, that the Pens were finished for the season and the next two games were a formality.
Even when the third came so close, somehow you still knew. The bounces were against them, Lady Luck had donned a Bruins jersey and the fat lady was practicing her song in the parking lot.
Problem One: Chemistry
Let's start with the chemistry. Crosby, Kunitz and Dupuis were the NHL's top scoring line during the regular season. By a wide margin. They had the magic. It was all there to see in the numbers. The rumbling in the fan world about finding Crosby that elite winger always amused me ... did they think it could be better? I doubt it. Players like Crosby do not need elite players to complete them, they need complete players they can raise to elite status. Kunitz and Dupuis are the proof I offer for this hypothesis.
And along comes Iginla. The elite right winger. By all accounts a classy guy, a great player and a genuine locker room presence. A leader. Go to guy. Hungry for a cup. And he brings with him the potential of a revived mythos ... the great golden moment still fresh in our minds.
The other additions altered nothing. Morrow and Murray were brought in to be role players, to augment the existing roster and they did just that ... exactly what they were supposed to do. No one was displaced. No one we missed, anyway. They fit in seamlessly because that's what role players do. Jokinen was a response to Crosby's injury and was a brilliant move by Shero. As well as any human being could have, he replaced Sid in the places (aside from scoring - although he gets an A for effort there, too) the Pens needed him the most ... in the circle and on the shoot out.
But Iggy was a star. A catch. A trophy bride, if you will.
The minute Crosby went down, on Iggy's inaugural outing in a Pen's jersey, the Iggy plan turned sour. Not that it was Iggy's fault, of course. But it started Iggy on a trek that might not have happened had Crosby been playing. He played on both top lines, on the powerplay, on the third line, almost always on his off wing. He was asked to step up ... and he did ... as well as the restrictions placed upon him allowed.
Pens fans started saying "NO COMMENT" when the discussion turned to Iggy because the frustration was turning to anger ... we were watching a brilliant player be used like an old work horse ... worse, for work he was never good at, even in his best days. He's a power forward with a wicked slapshot who likes to score from the point ... on his natural side. Except for the power play, and then only a few times, he never got to do that. It was sad to watch, really. Who could blame him for heading to Boston while the crying towels were still wet? He will be a top six there, allowed to play on his proper side, worked around. Because he's Jarome Iginla.
So, who is to blame? Shero for bringing in a guy who didn't fit anywhere unless he played off wing? Iginla for saying he could play off wing? Bylsma for refusing to settle him in anywhere close to his comfort zone? If you assume Shero did not do it blindly, without consulting Bylsma, which seems fair, then the blame must go to Iginla or Bylsma. Maybe Iginla was so pumped to play with Malkin and Crosby that he assumed he could do something he couldn't. Maybe he didn't realize he was relegating himself to being the jack of all trades and master of none.
But at the end of the day, when he was there, in a Pens jersey, it was the coaches obligation to fit him in in the top six, find him a consistent role to play or sit him on the bench and use him for special teams only. Bylsma tried all of those things - but none of them for very long and none of them with enough consistency to make them matter. Iggy just floated around trying to be helpful.
The thing is, while he was doing this, moving him all over the place, he was leaving a wake of broken chemistry, a bench full of players who didn't seem to know where and with whom they fit anymore. The time for that is in October and November, not in April, May and, God forbid, June.
Then Crosby came back and the weak chemistry starting to gel was broken again. Instead of just slotting Jokinen into Crosby's spot and leaving him there until #87 returned, putting Iggy in a place he could stay and letting him get comfortable, Bylsma jiggered and tinkered and changed out the springs until the whole thing was a squeaky mess. When Crosby returned it was almost like he didn't belong. And you don't even need to be a hockey expert to get how ridiculous that is, on every level imaginable.
Between all that and the merry go round of healthy scratches and bottom six line changes the Pens were a team of individuals by the time the Bruins got to them. Frustrated individuals, one presumes. It was like Bylsma was picking cards while they were face down, hoping to inject some life into a team that wasn't lifeless ... they were rudderless. He should have given them some consistency on the ice and worried less about consistency on the drawing board where dry erase markers are no substitute for the actual on ice reality.
In short, the chemistry problem was real. And it could have been prevented. Instead, it seemed to me it was exacerbated by coaching decisions that seemed odd at the time and, in hindsight, have migrated to full on wrong. It translated to an every man for himself on-ice product and no championship has ever been won by 23 individuals. It does take a team to hoist Lord Stanley.
So, to me, the chemistry is a coaching failure.
Problem Two: The Transition Game Fails
And fails big time. It's a thing of beauty when it works, is the Pens' transition game. It relies on long passes and puck moving defensemen. It counts on open ice and a clean corridor for the forwards. It starts early and ends late and usually results in a highlight reel rush up the side lanes and, very often, a goal.
Not so much against a trap-style team like Boston. It more often than not resulted in turnovers, ill advised efforts for rushing forwards to stick handle through a congested neutral zone and flat out offensive stalls that led to offensive opportunities at the red line ... for the other team.
It was the defense that failed, but not in the traditional letting goals in way ... it failed by being unable to be the bridge between actual defense (which they managed pretty well) and the offense. It sounds counter intuitive but the defense, the way the Pens play, is both the most important and weakest part of the Pens offense.
Letang looked like a fourth rate has been. Kris Letang. The soft handed, rough hitting, pretty skating, beautiful passing, defensively alert Letang. You remember him from his Norris nomination, right? Well, the system, so stubbornly stuck to like they were crazy glue and it was a piece of old rubber, failed and it took with it Letang with it. He and his cohorts could not get far enough into, if into at all, the neutral zone and could not make those long passes upon which the offense relies and time after time after time the forwards had to cycle back and try to create an offensive play deep in their own half of the ice, and often enough, in their own zone.
Yes, that was Sidney Crosby who was trying to stick handle through the neutral zone, from a standstill yet, while his defense moved their feet behind him in impotent uselessness. Yes, that was Evgeni Malkin stuck at the red line with no one to pass to and nowhere to go. Yes, that was Jarome Iginla skating like a demon down the side for a pass that never arrived on his stick. Yes, that was Jarome Iginla not skating fast enough to make it back and add a defensive effort.
When I watched the first few Hawks-Bruins games I felt relieved. Ah, I said to myself, the Hawks are having the same trouble. Maybe Boston did just ... you know ... beat us because they were a better team, as implausible as that seems if one reads roster sheets. But then Coach Q did an amazing thing. He adjusted. He realized the long passes would fail against Boston, that the neutral zone had to be navigated, not circumvented. He played to his speed and did an ungraceful thing, to be sure, but an effective one. He went to the dump and chase.
Coach B did the other thing. Stuck to his guns. Said to keep "playing their game". Well, he stuck to his guns until the the real guns got tired of the humiliation. And then the real war started. The Pens lost two important battles in that series; one with Boston and the other with themselves.
The problem that cost them was not the failure of the transition game, it was the failure of an alternative plan, an adjustment. A coaching failure.
Problem Three: The Superstars Go Rogue
The chemical imbalance, aided by the utter failure of the Pens game style against the tight checking Bruins, led to the superstars all becoming individuals and trying to exert their not inconsiderable will to win and talent like lone gunmen. This is not necessarily an insult to the players ... in some ways it proves their championship mettle ... and it is a natural conclusion to putting winners inside a losing scenario. The reason you love them on your team is they react predictably to losing ... they try and come up big, go for the clutch, raise the team around them with individual heroics. The problem gets out of hand when everyone does it and it works for no one and they do another predictable thing ... they try harder at it. The coach needs to settle that down before it gets a grip on them. He needs to call them out on it. Stomp his monster feet. Bench them, if needed. Call upon the older guys, the glut of leaders in the locker room, to settle them down.
The players lost confidence. Maybe in the system. Maybe in the coach. Maybe a little in themselves. I can only guess and use the clues available. And the guys on the team who are used to winning, who have been counted on their entire lives for the big moments ... well, they tried to bring them. All by themselves. The coach seemed powerless to stop it, which led me to conclude that he had, indeed, lost the room. In my opinion, barring both your goalies having the stomach flu at the same time, no more dangerous a situation exists than a coach losing the room.
If this is so, then the coach he has not only failed to provide a system the team believes in enough to play and has failed to put the pieces into the right places so it can be played, but he has failed to keep himself in charge.
All we can hope is that the players can shake it off, regain the Master of the Universe confidence each and every one of them will need to keep being superstars.
Problem Four: Between the Pipes
Vokoun was great. JUST shy of brilliant. Steady and stable and just what the Pens needed. But it was probably too little too late, their confidence had already been shattered and they played like a team afraid to leave their goalie alone back there.
Just when it looked like they might have enough confidence to stop playing tentatively in front of him, Game Two happened. And Fleury came out. The little spark on the tiny candle fizzled and died in that moment when he let a goal in on the first shot on net. And then two more. One of which I could have stopped with a garden rake and a decent pair of flip flops.
So now they knew it was them and Vokoun and if he was injured or tired or just not on his game there was no one waiting on a white horse to charge in and save the day. It felt to me like the straw that broke the camel's back. And they tightened up ... inside of a system that cannot be played tightly. They tried to protect their back end so desperately that they made mistakes, began to be afraid to have the puck and it began to resemble a game of hot potato. The Bruins took advantage and that, my friends, was all she wrote.
In summation, chemistry, transition game, individuality versus team and goal tending brought the Pens down. And, oh how they fell.
Part Two of Three
Before: Quo Vadis with that Status Quo
After: Fix It, Dear Liza