Gene Collier: Cup-or-bust style backfires on Penguins

Barely a week ago, in what I suppose would be called the newly renovated bowels of newly renovated Madison Square Garden, Penguins top management stood just outside the visiting team dressing room wearing smiles as bright as Broadway.

Co-owners Mario Lemieux and Ron Burkle and CEO David Morehouse had just watched the franchise they had saved, constructed and lacquered to a high gloss take a 3-1 lead in the Metropolitan Division final, and none of them nor anyone else in that part of the Garden that night could foresee that Dan Bylsma’s team, having just scored four goals in Game 4, would score three goals, total, in Games 5, 6, and 7.

Because there is no figuring out hockey.

Two-Minute Warning: Pens buckled instead of buckled up

PG columnist Gene Collier offers an irreverent look at the local sports scene, beginning with the Penguins' playoff disaster. (Video by Melissa Tkach; 5/15/2014)

That’s the problem for those executives today. They’ve got to figure out hockey, and worse, much worse, Penguins hockey.

You wanna try?

On March 30, Sidney Crosby scored two goals while the Penguins beat the Chicago Blackhawks, 4-1, solidifying their status as a team that could outskate and outplay and outwork anybody.

Over the next 6½ weeks, Crosby scored one goal, ultimately solidifying the Penguins’ status as a running postseason disaster. Once upon a time in NHL folklore, the Philadelphia Flyers and the Washington Capitals were the great notorious choking dogs of the postseason.

Well, move over Rover.

Try figuring that out.

At one point last week, the Penguins were 19-5 all time against the New York Rangers in the postseason. Then couldn’t get to 20 in three tries.

Make sense of that.

On the night of January 3, the Penguins scored four times in the first two periods and went on to beat the visiting Rangers, 5-2, the 20th time they had beaten the Rangers in the past 22 meetings in Pittsburgh.

The Rangers would go 25 months between victories on Penguins ice, but, in the playoffs, they got two victories in little more than two weeks.

Right. Figure that out.

“You work all year to put yourself in a position to win a Game 7,” spat forward James Neal in the minutes after the series was blown. “We’re supposed to score in big moments in big games. We didn’t, and that falls on our top players. We just didn’t get it done.”

In moments like these, this management team knows, it first has to step back for the broad view, even though that in itself has become wearying.

They will find the Penguins had a terrible year health-wise, leading the league in man-games lost to illness or injury, losing Pascal Dupuis from the top line to knee surgery, absorbing the shock and concern when Kris Letang had a stroke, and on and on.

When the postseason started, the club’s bedrock Cup-or-bust philosophy already was unrealistic, given their propensity for hurting themselves.

The playoffs barely had started when Brooks Orpik disappeared for a week. But, when Marc-Andre Fleury put back-to-back shutouts together and the Penguins got ahead, 3-1, expectations flipped and soared, crashed and burned.

The most useful thing management can figure out from all this is not why the Penguins’ manic audience always considers a 3-1 lead in a series a done deal, but why the Penguins themselves take pretty much the same approach.

Bylsma had no problem identifying Game 5 as the kill shot in the series that just ended. That was the night the Penguins needed one of those simple workmanlike home victories that were once routine against Henrik Lundqvist, but instead were crushed like a stinkbug, 5-1.

But it is Bylsma who will hang for that, for three failures in a home Game 7 in five years, and for two wasted 3-1 series leads in four years.

It’s time, it says here, to question Ray Shero’s Cup-or-bust approach. After winning Lord Stanley’s ostentatious receptacle in 2009, the Penguins under Shero and Bylsma have become disconnected with the reality that they, like everyone else, actually have to earn things.

You can have the best player in the world, and maybe the next-best player in the world, but all that and all your other assets really get you is a fat red bull’s-eye.

There is no utility in arriving at the postseason with the idea that one team is playing for the Cup and the other 15 are just trying to win a hockey game, and, with a little luck, another hockey game.

That is the mentality, in this opinion, that gets a supremely talented team into a 2-2 rat fight with the Columbus Blue Jackets. The same mentality is at work when the Penguins get ahead, 3-1, in a series, which they seem to feel is validation that, again, they’re playing for the Cup rather than something so pedestrian as a fourth victory in a second-round series with the Rangers.

Whether with their philosophy or their strategy or the habitual substandard postseason performances of their top players, or from some combination of all three, the Penguins over the past five years have produced a sophisticated and complex formula that just doesn’t work when it matters.

Figuring out how to fix that is a job for big hockey brains and bigger hockey wallets now that their biggest New York smiles have faded from view.

Gene Collier:

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