Ron Cook: With much of the lineup back, playoffs should be a fun ride

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The Penguins have become a mediocre hockey club, 11-9-2 since the Olympic break, including their 4-3 shootout home win Wednesday night against the Detroit Red Wings. They are ready to do another quick exit from the playoffs, perhaps even a one-and-done. Marc-Andre Fleury will wilt again under the pressure. The rest of the team will be undisciplined. Evgeni Malkin, James Neal, Kris Letang and even Sidney Crosby will take stupid retaliatory penalties out of frustration. Dan Bylsma will be fired as coach.

That about sum it up?

I don't get it. I'm not sure why people are so down on this band of Penguins. If they win one of their final two regular-season games this weekend against Philadelphia and Ottawa, they will finish with 109 points, the second-highest total in franchise history.

I really don't get why everyone is so down on Bylsma. Shouldn't he be the NHL's coach of the year? He won't get the award, of course. The voters will hold Crosby against him. "Anyone can coach a team with the greatest player in the world." What the voters won't look at closely are the Penguins' 512 man-games lost, easily the most in the league. Crosby has played in all but one of the 80 games, but most of the team's other key players haven't been so fortunate. Start with backup goaltender Tomas Vokoun, who has missed all 80. Go to Beau Bennett (61 missed), Letang (45), Paul Martin (43) and Pascal Dupuis (41). Take a deep breath and add Rob Scuderi (29), Joe Vitale (27), Neal (23) and Malkin (20).

And people can't wait to fire Bylsma?

Before they even give him another shot in the playoffs?

Bylsma became a smarter coach Wednesday night when he had Letang in his lineup for the first time since Letang's stroke in late January. Letang brings energy, great skill and a deep hunger to salvage what has been a lost season. He had the primary assist on Jussi Jokinen's goal in the third period.

For just the eighth time this season, the Penguins were able to play their top six defensemen together. That is an amazing statistic. Here is another that shows just a small part of what the team had to overcome to get to 107 points: It went six consecutive games in December without any of its top four defensemen -- Letang, Martin, Scuderi and Brooks Orpik.

Bylsma really became more intelligent when Martin returned four games ago after missing 18 with a broken hand. No one on the Penguins gets more valuable minutes than Martin. He's half of the team's top defensive pairing with Orpik. He plays on the first power-play and first penalty-kill units. It's no coincidence that the Penguins' penalty-kill was successful on all 12 of the opponent's power plays in his four games back. His work against the Red Wings was fairly typical of what he can do: A team-high 27:33 of ice time, assists on each of two power-play goals by Neal and three blocked shots.

The Penguins, finally, are getting healthy at the right time, but they still need Malkin, who has missed nine games with a foot injury. If he can be ready for the start of the playoffs next week, the team will have a top two lines of Chris Kunitz-Crosby-Bennett and Jokinen-Malkin-Neal. Those lines can carry a third line of Tanner Glass-Brandon Sutter-Lee Stempniak and a fourth line of Craig Adams and whatever two forwards Bylsma wants to use a long way.

The Penguins were heavy favorites to win the Stanley Cup a year ago and came up short, getting swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference final. That pressure won't be a factor this time. The Bruins are considered a much better team. So are St. Louis and Chicago in the West.

But I like the Penguins' chances if Malkin gets healthy and the others stay healthy. Fleury has been terrific all season and was again Wednesday night, especially in the shootout. His teammates felt like they let him down when he was benched last season in the first-round series against the New York Islanders. They will rally around him in these playoffs. I'll be surprised if he doesn't play great.

Boston is the best team in the East and will be difficult to beat. But Crosby and a healthy Malkin are two advantages that the Penguins have over the Bruins. In that Boston sweep a year ago, neither scored a point. It's going to be fun to watch what happens this time if the two get another shot at the Bruins.

Much work has to be done before then, though.

At least two playoff rounds, the first perhaps against those same Red Wings.

I'm going to enjoy watching every second of the ride for as long it lasts.

I'm certainly not going to predict failure before it even starts.

Ron Cook: rcook@post-gazette.com. Ron Cook can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.


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