Gut-Check Time

Now’s the time that tries head coaches’ souls, or at least one head coach in particular – Pittsburgh’s Dan Bylsma. He has been taking a lot of criticism for his seeming intransigence in game strategy. Something like banging a square peg in a round hole.

I don’t claim to know what’s in Coach Disco’s head, but I do have some questions after the paltry showing in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Boston Bruins, and most definitely after the post-apocalyptic landscape that was Consol Energy Center after a 6-1 drubbing in Game 2 that left an entire flock of Penguins looking completely victimized.

  • Question 1: Where did all the good gap go? Defensive zone assignments were abandoned in favor of a run-and-gun style that at times left the Pens defense caught too far up ice with no way to recover in time to help out an often over-exposed Tomas Vokoun. Conversely, defensive pairs were regularly backed into their netminder, crowding him from seeing the puck rather than clearing space for him. Forwards seemed to forget that they were an integral part of coming back on defense, particularly the F3 whose job it is to come high in the offensive zone for any defensive transition coming back.
  • Question 2: What part of “clear the zone” don’t you understand? The trademark stretch pass has been exposed, game-planned and effectively neutralized. Now, the Penguins are going up against a team that knows how to clog up the neutral zone a-la the New Jersey Devils but with a special brand of speed attacks that have elicited odd-man break after odd-man break. Clearing attempts, not of the stretch pass variety, have looked hurried and harried in the face of  very aggressive pressure by at least one and many times two Bruins. Running the gauntlet (Geno!) does not work against this team. Their sticks are too good.This needs to be broken like a full-court press in basketball with very quick, accurate (tape-to-tape in this sport) passing and a lot of support. However…
  • Question 3: When is tape-to-tape passing to the other guy’s stick acceptable? Never. But if you look at how well the Penguins passed to the other team, just take a gander at the official Giveaways for Game 2 (12). Unofficially, there seemed to be many more. Most noticeably in Game 2, the Penguins’ passes were anywhere but where they were supposed to be. This is a team that has virtually schooled other teams in the regular season on precision passing. Monday night, timing was off all over the place, almost to a man. They know how to do this, but often missed passes (like missed catches in football) are because someone took their eye off the object in flight, thinking too quickly of the next step (on the part of the receiver) OR rushed distribution of the pass resulting in over or undershooting the intended receiver.
  • Question 4: What makes Geno a blueliner? Honestly, I cringe every time the power play showcases the “Geno Experiment” where Evgeni Malkin becomes the 4th forward, or rather, the 2nd defenseman on the power play. How many times does Dan Bylsma have to make fans watch Geno force pucks across the ice through the very active sticks of the Bruins PK, losing it to an odd-man break the other way that he rarely manages to get back and defend? When will Paul Martin be given the respect he deserves for his near-Gonchar-like ability to properly perform a powerplay entry and effectively manage (i.e. QB) the man-advantage regularly?
  • Question 5: Why all the left-handed shots on the power-play? When the Penguins set up Jarome Iginla on the left circle, the right-handed winger is in perfect position for one-timers on Rask all day long. It has been proven to work, with the caveat that the coaches make Geno (hangin’ out on the opposite circle for his one-timers) understand that he is not the one to distribute the puck through opposing sticks to Iginla — leave that job to Martin and Letang. A left-handed shot on the left side requires an extra movement to set up the puck, and against a very aggressive Bruins team, this is not possible. While this configuration would displace Neal and Kunitz, really, nobody said Sid and Geno HAVE to be on the same powerplay (a sacreligious statement to some hardcore analysts). Nobody said the 2nd power play HAD to be less than the first. Why not two very strong power play units?
  • Question 6: Facing off or being faced? The Penguins have been very  uneven in the face-off circle this season, and even though there has been improvement, the defensive zone still remains a problem, and that does not help the netminder. Jokinen has shown why he’s on the team with his high percentages, but in Game 2, he was a dismal 1/4 (25%), a significant drop from Game 1 (6/10 at 60%). Malkin managed to improve from his Game 1 unperformance of 1/6 (17%) to a more acceptable 9/14 (64%). Sid is still struggling having put in 6/17 (35%) in Game 1 improving to 8/18 (44%) in Game 2.

Gird Up Your Loins, Boys! — Psychologically, this team has been notorius for looking like they will collapse completely and then pull off success. They seem to “like” doing it the hard way. They show signs of stress and now that both netminders have had their wings singed, they have to dig deep, no matter who starts, and put in the performance they have the ability to put in. To a man, this Penguins team has to strip it back down to Hockey 101 and the one thing Bylsma is known for preaching: playing the right way. Fancy won’t get it. Egos won’t get it. One guy trying to do it all won’t get it. They have yet to put in a full 60-minutes of unrelenting Penguins hockey. Game 3 would be a good time to start.

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