Ron Cook: Playoffs mean it's gut-check time for all Penguins



Finally, it's playoff time, and just about everybody in hockey thinks the pressure is on the Penguins, more than any other NHL club. They have been built to win a Stanley Cup year after year and have failed to do so since 2009. That seems like a lifetime ago. Popular thinking is they had better not fail again.

The Penguins couldn't have asked for a better -- read: easier -- first-round opponent than the Columbus Blue Jackets. Game 1 is Wednesday night at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins went 5-0 against Columbus this season. The Blue Jackets will be playing without one of their top players, big forward Nathan Horton. They have had zero postseason success since joining the NHL in 2000-01. They were swept by Detroit in 2009 in their only playoff appearance.

The Penguins can't lose this series, right?

They won't.

They will win in five games.

But the pressure is on the Penguins to do a lot more than just beat Columbus. They also need to win the second-round series against Philadelphia or the New York Rangers, then take their chances in the Eastern Conference final, almost certainly against the powerful Boston Bruins. Anything less will be considered a local sporting disaster.

The heat is on everybody to win, but it's especially hot on coach Dan Bylsma, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and captain Sidney Crosby. Bylsma could lose his job if the team comes up short again. Fleury could lose his if he plays poorly again in the playoffs. Crosby's legacy will take another big hit if the Penguins lose before their time.

Let's start with Crosby. Bylsma gave him the night off Sunday against the Ottawa Senators -- a 3-2 shootout loss in a meaningless game -- better to have him rested and ready for the Blue Jackets. What a fabulous, healthy season it has been for Crosby. He won his second NHL scoring title with 104 points and surely will win his second MVP award.

But who would have guessed the Crosby-led Penguins would not have won another Cup after watching him hoist it in 2009? He hasn't been good enough under the bright lights. He didn't have a point when the team was swept by the Bruins last spring in the Eastern Conference final. He was outplayed by Philadelphia's Claude Giroux when it was eliminated in 2012 in the first round.

The Penguins expect better, not just from Crosby, but from his highly-paid teammates. Since 2006, the team has invested more than half a billion dollars in Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, James Neal, Paul Martin, Brooks Orpik, Chris Kunitz, Pascal Dupuis and Fleury. Those players have sold a lot of tickets and plenty of jerseys, but they haven't won nearly enough postseason games. The team is 3-4 in playoff series since the Cup year.

The Bruins are the better hockey club, but they don't have Crosby. He's the best player in the world. He needs to play like it in these playoffs. He can be the difference in any series. He must be the difference, actually.

Fleury will be under the most scrutiny. That's always true of the goaltender at playoff time, but it's especially true of a guy who has been mediocre or worse since helping the Penguins win the Cup. He was benched in the first-round series last season against the New York Islanders, prompting instant speculation he would be traded after the season. But management stuck with him, quickly announcing he would again be the No. 1 guy. Fleury did not disappoint, playing superbly all season and winning 39 games. Of course, that means nothing now. Everyone will be watching to see how he reacts to letting in his first bad goal or losing his first game. I think his teammates are going to rally him. I believe he's going to play great.

But there are no guarantees.

Well, there is one. Bylsma probably will take the fall if Crosby, Fleury and the others underachieve again. It's not fair because players -- not coaches -- decide games, but who says life is fair?

Bylsma should be the NHL's coach of the year after leading the Penguins to 51 wins and 109 points -- each the second-best total in franchise history -- despite losing more than 525 man-games to injury. But, like Crosby and Fleury, Bylsma will be judged only by what the team does in the postseason. Many fans and media wanted him gone last spring after the sweep by the Bruins even though the Penguins' best players did nothing in that series. Crosby wasn't the only one not to get a point. Malkin, Neal and Letang didn't score, either. Management seemed to realize where the blame belonged. It stared down the Bylsma criticism and gave him a two-year contract extension.

Bylsma talked about this Penguins team "finding ways to win" despite all its injuries. He mentioned the outstanding goaltending all season. He said he liked the improved mentality when it comes to defense.

It all sounded great.

But management won't be patient forever.

Not with Bylsma.

Not with Fleury.

Not with Crosby's rich pals.

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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