Penguins coach Dan Bylsma calls out his team on work ethic against Columbus

The Penguins have absorbed 215 hits from Columbus in the first four games of their opening-round playoff series.

That’s easily the most of any NHL team in these playoffs, and that total doesn’t even include the one their own coach delivered Thursday.

Dan Bylsma, asked what aspect of his team’s performance in Games 1 through 4 troubles him most, did not point to the Penguins’ penalty-killing, which has dropped from 85 percent efficiency to 75 percent against the Blue Jackets.

He didn’t mention that Brooks Orpik and Craig Adams, who combined for seven goals in the regular season, have one each in the series. Which means they each have one more than franchise centers Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Combined.

In fact, Bylsma didn’t bring up anything rooted in simple statistics. Instead, he cited a far more fundamental concern.

“The work and the compete and the battle level has probably been the most troubling thing from our team,” he said.

“That’s been the thing throughout this series, to this point, that’s been most troubling. It’s got to be raised.

“It’s got to be back up to a level that is necessary at this time of year, and in this type of hockey. In playoff hockey.”

That shortcoming hasn’t been a constant — there have been times when the Penguins have dominated, and when they’ve overcome major adversity — but it’s happened often enough that they are tied, 2-2, with a team that was a near-prohibitive underdog going into the series.

And Game 4, when the Penguins built a 3-0 lead in the first 12 minutes, only to lose, 4-3, in overtime Wednesday at Narionwide Arena, underscored what can happen when the Penguins allow their sweat glands to have a little down time.

“We get up three goals in the game, and they were the team that worked and competed and outbattled us for most of the duration of the game,” Bylsma said.

Both teams had Thursday off and are scheduled to practice today in preparation for Game 5 at 7:08 p.m. Saturday at Consol Energy Center.

The Penguins and Blue Jackets have alternated victories in the series, with the winner of each game rallying from a 3-1 deficit. And, in Game 4, Columbus climbed out of a 3-0 hole.

Had the Penguins held on in Game 4, they would be looking to lock up a berth in the second round Saturday. Instead, they’ll be trying to grab the early advantage in what has been distilled to a best-of-three.

The Penguins still seem to be widely regarded as the favorite, if not the sentimental choice among people outside their fan base, to win the series, but their margin for error has shrunk considerably over the past six days.

Think of it this way: The Blue Jackets have won two of the past three games. If they can duplicate that feat by the middle of next week, they’ll advance to Round 2 for the first time in franchise history.

“You’re never out of a series until it’s over,” Columbus center Ryan Johansen said. “We have an opportunity, if we win [Saturday], to come home and finish the job.”

The Penguins have proven capable of going on offensive rampages — they scored three times in a span of 301 seconds in the first period of Game 4 — even though neither Crosby nor Malkin has a goal in this series. Both have four assists, but neither is having the anticipated offensive impact.

Bylsma suggested Crosby does not have any major physical issues — “He’s, like everyone else, healthy and ready to go” — but agreed that he and Malkin are counted on for more offense than they’ve generated so far.

“They’re our best players,” he said. “We need more from our whole team, and we need more from them.”

The Blue Jackets’ victory in Game 4, when they scored the tying goal at 19:36 of the third period and the winner at 2:49 of overtime, might be the most epic in the team’s 14 years. Still, there’s no guarantee Columbus will get momentum, or any other residual benefit, from it.

“The games stand on their own,” Adams said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of carryover from game to game.”

Columbus coach Todd Richards noted the Penguins’ edge in experience — “This is a team that has won. They know what it takes to win. They’ve played in a lot of 2-2 series before” — while Bylsma boiled the situation down to its most basic terms.

“It’s 2-2 now,” he said. “It’s a best-of-three, and we’re in a battle.”

One whose survivor might well be determined by which team is willing to battle hardest.

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG.

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