It's time for Penguins to answer the call

Dan Bylsma’s players likely were a bit surprised to learn that he had questioned their willingness to battle and compete in a meeting with reporters Thursday.

After all, Bylsma almost never publicly criticizes his players, individually or collectively.

But that doesn’t mean they disagreed with their coach’s assessment of their often-spotty work in the first four games of their opening-round playoff series against Columbus.

“I think he was right,” center Sidney Crosby said Friday. “We have to find a way to be more desperate.”

And they have to do it by 7:08 p.m. today, when Game 5 against the Blue Jackets will begin at Consol Energy Center. The teams have split the first four games, which means both are just two victories shy of locking up a spot in Round 2.

Columbus tied the series with a come-from-behind victory in Game 4, forcing overtime with a goal in the final half-minute of regulation and getting the winner less than three minutes into the extra period.

The Penguins certainly could have won that game, but that doesn’t mean they deserved to because Columbus had an edge in play — especially in the second period, which it dominated — for much of the time after falling behind by three goals.

About 15 hours after the Blue Jackets evened the series, Bylsma told reporters in a matter-of-fact tone that “the work and the compete and the battle level” of his players was what troubled him most about the first four games.

That a team’s effort even would be an issue during a playoff series borders on remarkable — “It’s not [a question] you typically want to be having to answer,” Crosby said — but more than a few players suggested Bylsma might have pushed the right button by making it one.

“That was maybe something we needed, as far as a kick in the butt,” defenseman Paul Martin. “We need to compete harder, we need to be better in all areas of the ice.

“Be better as individuals and as a team. We realize we have a lot of [room for] improvement and can play a lot better.”

That includes getting more offensive production from their most talented players — it has been noted once or twice that neither Crosby nor Evgeni Malkin has a goal in this series — but mostly, it means being willing to sweat and sacrifice, not just try to get by on skill.

It means winning one-on-one battles for the puck. Grinding along the boards and in the corners. Consistently venturing into the areas around the net, where the elbows and sticks can be high.

“Sometimes, you get too cute and you don’t do the things that really matter,” right winger James Neal said. “We just have to get back to doing those things.

“That’s being physical, that’s being hard on pucks, it’s going to the net, it’s going to the dirty areas. It’s something we didn’t think we’d have to talk about.”

Well, they did. And they have.

And beginning tonight, the Penguins will get to show whether it’s just been a topic of conversation or something to which they’ve made a genuine commitment.

Which of those it is might well shape the outcome of this series.

“You can have all the talent in the world,” defenseman Kris Letang said. “If you don’t work for those loose pucks or in those critical areas where you have to win battles, it’s going to cost you at some point.”

The Penguins already have paid a price for that. Keep it up, and that price will only get higher.

Their failings have been magnified by the Blue Jackets’ impressive work so far. Columbus might not be able to match the Penguins’ overall skill, but its work ethic is exemplary.

“Part of the reason we’re not playing well is that Columbus is playing exceptionally,” forward Joe Vitale said. “They didn’t get enough respect before the series started, but I’ll say it again: They have four lines that go hard.

“They compete. They have talent. They’re a very, very good hockey club.

“We had our hands full at the beginning of the series and we definitely have ours hand full now.”

True, but the Penguins still have home-ice advantage in what has become a best-of-three and seem to have purged any leftover disappointment or self-doubts rooted in their self-immolation at the end of Game 4.

“We had a tough one last game that we’d like to have back, but we have a chance to redeem ourselves [tonight],” Neal said. “That’s what we’ll do.

“Our battle level is going to be there. It’s the Stanley Cup playoffs. We’re going to come out ready to go. I think you’ll see a different team from now on.”.

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG

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