Ron Cook: Bylsma's job on the line in Game 7



Win or lose Game 7 tonight against the New York Rangers, Penguins star Sidney Crosby will be back next season as the face of the franchise and of the NHL.

Win tonight and Penguins coach Dan Bylsma will be back.

I assume you notice the difference?

It hardly seems fair in some ways. Any coach is only as good as his star players. Many of Bylsma's stars haven't been nearly good enough against the Rangers. That's especially true of Crosby, who acknowledged after the Penguins' 3-1 loss in Game 6 Sunday night that he would like to be doing more, but then said, in a rare curt, defensive moment, that he would leave the evaluation of his play to others.

I'm cool with that and accept the challenge.

Crosby has been a huge disappointment, not just against the Rangers, but also in the first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets. He didn't have a point in Games 5 and 6 against the Rangers as the Penguins blew two chances to advance to the Eastern Conference final. He hasn't been able to lift the team's power play, which has scored just once in 19 chances against the Rangers. He has only one goal in 12 postseason games this spring, one in 17 playoff games dating to last season. He failed to get a point last year when the Penguins were swept by the Boston Bruins in four games in the Eastern Conference final.

Shouldn't we expect more from Crosby, who ran away with the NHL scoring title this season and surely will be named the league's MVP? The Penguins certainly do. They are paying Crosby $12 million this season. Right now, they are getting closer to 12 cents in return from him.

Yet Bylsma will take the hard fall if the Penguins lose tonight at Consol Energy Center. Who says life is fair for an NHL coach? No sport treats its coaches with less respect than hockey.

But in other ways, Bylsma would deserve to take the fall. It's true, he led the Penguins to 109 points in the regular season -- their second-biggest number in franchise history -- despite losing 529 man-games to injury. It's also true he would be hired by another club in about 3½ minutes. He's that highly regarded around the NHL.

But if the Penguins lose tonight, it will be the fifth consecutive year they will have been eliminated from the playoffs by a lower seed. They will be just 4-5 in postseason series since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009 under Bylsma. This elimination, should it happen, will hurt more than most because the Penguins had what seemed to be a secure 3-1 series edge.

No ownership can be expected to put up with that underachievement. Bylsma will have to go if the Penguins lose tonight even though he has a contract for two more seasons.

I interrupt here to say I believe the Penguins can win Game 7. It's hard for any team to win three games in a tough series on the other club's ice. The Penguins found that out Sunday night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers should find out tonight Uptown.

Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury wasn't so good in Games 5 and 6 but showed earlier in the series that he could beat the Rangers, shut them out twice, actually. I expect the home crowd to lift him up early the way it did after his troubles in Game 4 of the Columbus series. There's no doubt that support sent him on a streak when he nearly was unbeatable.

Evgeni Malkin was coming on against the Rangers, at least before Game 6. It's way past time for James Neal to do something besides take silly penalties after losing his cool. Are you sick of watching that or what? Certainly, it's past time for Crosby, who, in addition to having just the one goal, is a minus-3 against the Rangers.

More than just a trip to Round 3 is at stake tonight.

These Penguins will be playing to stay together.

Bylsma won't be the only one to go if the team loses. I would suggest that any player but Crosby could be moved in the offseason. That includes Malkin. That seems unlikely, but if you want to tell me the grand Crosby-Malkin experiment has failed so far, I won't argue. If I had told you after the Penguins won the Cup in 2009 that they wouldn't have another yet, would you have believed me?

No one should be off-limits if the Penguins lose Game 7. That includes general manager Ray Shero. His track record with coaches suddenly doesn't look so good. I was in total agreement with his decision in June to give Bylsma a two-year contract extension through the 2015-16 season. Eating the final two years of that deal, should Bylsma be fired, might not be so unpalatable if the Penguins hadn't had to do the same thing with Michel Therrien a few years ago. Shero gave him a new three-year deal after the Penguins went to the Cup final in 2008, then fired him the following February. Even rich owners Ron Burkle and Mario Lemieux can't like paying two coaches not to coach.

Shero also has committed big money and long contracts to Crosby, Malkin and Kris Letang. They have sold a lot of tickets and jerseys but haven't won nearly enough playoff games. After last season, Shero signed older players Pascal Dupuis, Chris Kunitz and Rob Scuderi to multiyear deals. Scuderi's contract for four seasons, $13.5 million looks to be a horrible mistake.

Sorry, that's just how things look after two ugly losses to the Rangers. Maybe the Penguins will win tonight and the world will seem a little better in the morning. Maybe, instead of firings and change, we'll be talking about the team getting ready for Boston or Montreal in the Eastern Conference final.

Two things we know for sure about Game 7:

Bylsma's future here depends on it.

Crosby's short-term legacy depends on it.

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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