Philadelphia, PA – Losing the first two games on home ice is never a good way to start a series, but that only begins to describe the predicament facing Dan Bylsma's team in the Eastern Conference finals.
The Pittsburgh Penguins were shut down by the Boston Bruins in a 3-0 loss to open the series on Saturday, and things only went downhill for Bylsma's boys in Game 2. Boston scored early and often in the second meeting, slamming the Penguins by a 6-1 count as it grabbed a 2-0 lead with the series heading back to Beantown.
Now, in the wake of Monday's rout, Bylsma and his staff have their hands full. The top question is who will be in net for Game 3, but the tough decisions hardly end there.
After all, whether it's Tomas Vokoun or Marc-Andre Fleury between the pipes on Wednesday, Pittsburgh has been bad in so many areas in the first two games of this series and there doesn't seem to be an easy fix to their problems. The top-seeded Pens were outplayed in the opener and then appeared to suffer a complete systematic breakdown in Game 2.
In the aftermath, there is more than enough blame to go around and for once even Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby deserves to have a finger pointed in his direction. It was a Crosby turnover on Monday that led to Boston taking a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds into the game, and his team never really recovered after that.
"Pretty bad, there's no easy way to describe it," Crosby said following the Game 2 debacle. "Just a bad hockey game. Too many things to list where we were bad."
Of course, Crosby or fellow Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin won't find their jobs in danger if this series keeps going in the same directions, but the same can't be said for Bylsma.
After all, this isn't the first time Pittsburgh has become untethered from its core principles during the postseason, and every time the situation reoccurs you'd have to think Bylsma is closer to taking the fall.
Just Last spring, the Pens infamously went down in flames in the first round against the rival Philadelphia Flyers, allowing 30 goals over the course of the six-game series. The ghosts of that pitiful playoff memory seemed to haunt Pittsburgh in the first round this year against the New York Islanders, but a switch in net from Fleury to Vokoun covered up those issues for a while until they've re-emerged in this series.
"We have to get back to playing our game, to playing good defensive hockey. We have to get back to playing good away from the puck and that's got to happen throughout our lineup," said Bylsma. "I think you'll see some changes in our lines and a few guys being added to our lineup to do so."
Due to Pittsburgh's recent defensive history in the postseason, the nine goals allowed over the first two games against Boston is not a surprise, but the Bruins' ability to shut down the Pens' formidable offense is downright shocking.
After leading led the NHL with an average of 3.38 goals per game during the regular season, the Pens entered this series with an average of 4.27 gpg in the postseason, placing them more than a goal ahead of the next-best team -- the Bruins. In Games 1 and 2, Boston somehow was able to shut down Pittsburgh's offense while simultaneously raising the level of its own offensive game.
At this stage there's not a great deal Bylsma and his staff can do besides tinkering with the lineup and making sure his team is not wallowing in the two ugly losses. It's not like the Pittsburgh coaches are going to implement an entirely new system to deal with Boston, but Bylsma can convince his players that they need to rededicate themselves to playing responsible hockey and giving a better effort.
The bigger issue for Bylsma seems to be getting his team to play with more intensity when things don't go well. While the Penguins engaged in some physical play during Game 1, the club appeared lifeless for large stretches of Monday's rout. If that happens again in Game 3, Pittsburgh may not only be on its way to an early exit from the conference finals, it could be time for them to get another coach.
Bylsma coached Pittsburgh to a Stanley Cup title in 2009, but the goodwill from that championship run is beginning to wear down due to recent playoff meltdowns. If Bylsma can't provide the answers needed to fix this recurring problem, then what are his Stanley Cup credentials really worth?
Pittsburgh general manager Ray Shero added veteran pieces like Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray to his already stacked club at this season's trade deadline and it's no secret those moves weren't designed merely to get the Pens back to the conference finals. In reality, only a Stanley Cup could satisfy the expectations created by Pittsburgh's active trade deadline.
That's not to say Bylsma deserves to be fired if they don't achieve that goal. But if the Pens go down in this series as quietly as they've begun it, Bylsma's days in Pittsburgh may be numbered.