Fixes, not hype, Penguins playoff priority
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It's OK if we get lost in the hysterical Penguins-Philadelphia Flyers rhetoric, which spiraled out of control Monday when NBC analyst and former NHL coach Mike Milbury jumped into the fray in an interview with WIP radio in Philadelphia. Milbury suggested Penguins coach Dan Bylsma "should have taken off his skirt" and fought Flyers coach Peter Laviolette after Laviolette challenged him late in the Flyers' 6-4 win Sunday at Consol Energy Center. Milbury also went after Penguins star Sidney Crosby, calling him "little goody-two-shoes," saying there's a "little punk in him," inexcusably making light of his concussion history by flippantly referring to "his 35th concussion" and closing with a, "Screw him, hit him."
It's not OK if the Penguins get lost in the raging hype.
That would be a horrible mistake.
"It's useless for us to get caught up in it," Crosby said Monday. "We're a much better team when we just play."
Crosby gets it.
So does Bylsma.
Bylsma gets paid big bucks to keep the Penguins focused on the task at hand, which is to correct the team's problems, finish the regular season strong this week and inflict the worst possible pain on the Flyers by kicking their tails in the first round of the playoffs. I'm cool that he has chosen not to respond to the emotional Laviolette or to Milbury, a long-time whacko who made big headlines here two decades ago when, as coach of the Boston Bruins, he called beloved Penguins coach "Badger" Bob Johnson "a professor of goonism" in the teams' playoff series.
Crosby is getting paid bigger bucks to help the Penguins end a mini-slump in which they have lost four times in six games. He doesn't need to get into a hissing contest with Milbury, although, should he choose to do so, I have the perfect retort for him.
"You certainly know plenty about being a punk, Milbury. That was real manly of you when you assaulted that 12-year-old pee-wee player in December."
That would be great fun, but I'd rather see Bylsma and Crosby fix the power-play and penalty-killing units.
Failures there can get you beat in a playoff series, not over-the-top theatrics by Laviolette and certainly not inane comments by the attention-seeking Milbury.
The defense has been less than stellar of late, particularly when the team focuses too much on trying to outscore its opponent. At the same time, goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury -- who gets the vote here as team MVP -- has been slightly less impenetrable than he was in the first five months of the season. That's a bad combination.
But the special teams have become the biggest issue for the Penguins. The power play, which should be the most powerful in hockey, is just 7 for 55 (12.7 percent) in the past 17 games. The penalty-kill, which was among the NHL's best for most of the season, has allowed at least one power-play goal in six of the past nine games, including one Sunday that gave the Flyers a 3-2 lead early in the third period. In those nine games, it killed just 20 of 27 penalties (74.1 percent).
Any team is going to have a hard time winning a playoff series -- let alone the Stanley Cup -- with those numbers.
The power play is especially troubling. It's hard to say it's back on track because it scored a late meaningless goal Sunday against the Flyers and two significant goals Friday night in a 5-3 win against the Buffalo Sabres. It just doesn't look right. A unit with Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and James Neal, who leads the NHL with 17 power-play goals, should be much more dynamic.
Many have suggested that Bylsma should abandon his use of five forwards on the power play. I'm all for it. But Bylsma said he will continue to use five, although he added that defenseman Kris Letang would be worked in. All I can say is the sooner, the better even though the man Letang would replace -- Steve Sullivan -- is highly competent. Letang is that good.
Letang, playing his first game Sunday after missing three with a leg injury, wasn't on the first power play in the first two periods against the Flyers but played on it in the third. The guess here is Bylsma wanted to limit Letang's minutes just a bit for this comeback game, but, as it was, Letang still played a game-high 27:58. The problem is Letang is so valuable to the Penguins in every way. It's a nice problem to have because he's a terrific player, but Bylsma needs to get him on the first power play even if it means sacrificing a few of his minutes in other areas.
Many also have suggested that Bylsma split Crosby and Malkin and have two power-play units. I couldn't disagree more even though I'm aware the top unit operated at a higher level this season when Crosby was out of the lineup for two lengthy periods because of concussion-like symptoms.
Egos, you know?
The Penguins' top power-play unit generally gets 1:20 or 1:30 of a 2:00 power play. Which of the two -- Crosby or Malkin -- should Bylsma put on the second unit? That's a question that's best avoided for the good of the team. No coach can afford the risk of one of his stars checking out mentally in the slightest way for any reason. You might say that's awfully small of Crosby and Malkin, but I would disagree. Their egos shouldn't be underestimated when it comes to their success.
Anyway, why wouldn't you want the two best players in the world together?
I'm confident Crosby and Malkin will figure it out with help from Letang.
First Published April 3, 2012 7:00 am