Dan Bylsma is in his third full season, and fourth overall, as the head coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins. In this time, he has accomplished quite a bit.
After guiding the Penguins to the 2009 Stanley Cup after coaching just 25 games, the Pens have made the playoffs in each of the following three seasons. Last season, he took home the Jack Adams Trophy for the NHL’s outstanding coach after working through much of the 2010-11 campaign without Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
This year, the Pens claimed fourth place in the Eastern Conference with a record of 51-25-6 for 108 points. They got home-ice advantage for their quarterfinal series with the Philadelphia Flyers, and many predicted they would be able to get past their intrastate rivals and eventually earn a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.
However, the series has been a letdown for Penguins fans so far. Pittsburgh is currently in a 3-0 hole and is facing elimination in Wednesday night’s Game 4.
Pittsburgh may be a team expected to contend for the Stanley Cup, but it has not shown any of what made it a favorite in the regular season. It blew a 3-0 lead at home in Game 1, losing 4-3 in overtime, and was then spotted for eight goals in Games 2 and 3.
In Sunday’s Game 3, Bylsma lost control of the bench. Arron Asham was tossed for cross-checking Flyers forward Brayden Schenn in the throat, and then continued to punch Schenn after he fell to the ice. Kris Letang was kicked out after a fight with Kimmo Timonen. Team captain Sidney Crosby also got involved in a fight, while Craig Adams put Scott Hartnell in a chokehold during an argument.
If the Penguins cannot come back and win the series, it will mark the second year in a row they have faced a disappointing playoff exit. In 2011, they dropped a 3-1 series lead to the Tampa Bay Lightning and lost in seven games; the final game was lost at CONSOL Energy Center.
The Penguins also exited early in 2010, losing to the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
This begs the question: Is it time to fire Dan Bylsma?
At first glance, it’s easy to say no. After all, Bylsma has had plenty of regular-season success, as the Pens have been the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed every year he has been in charge. He has helped them come out as a team that can always contend for a playoff spot, if not the Stanley Cup.
Furthermore, it's hard to forget what he did in 2009. Upon his promotion from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL, the Pens went 18-3-4 in their final 25 games, storming back from 10th place in the Eastern Conference to secure a playoff berth.
At the same time, however, with a talented roster like the one the Penguins boast, the last few playoff disappointments have been hard to swallow. One can only bring up 2009 for so long before you realize that while it's a nice moment in Penguins history, Bylsma can't live on that for the rest of his career.
The roster that won the 2009 Stanley Cup is still largely intact. Aside from the core of Crosby, Malkin, Jordan Staal and Marc-Andre Fleury, forwards such as Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis remain. Dupuis and Kunitz are good for at least 20 goals in the regular season.
There is also physical defenseman Brooks Orpik and Letang, who has begun to establish himself as one of the league’s best defensemen. Letang is seen as the glue that holds the defense together, as the Penguins struggle on the blue line when he is out with injury.
When the Penguins won the Cup three years ago, many were expecting another championship to come in a short time frame. The players who were young in the 2008 Finals against the Detroit Red Wings had matured and gained valuable playoff experience. Fleury, who had a reputation for not being able to come up in big games, appeared to have shaken that label.
Against the Flyers, though, it seems like this is a Penguins team that has never seen a playoff game. They hustled more in Game 3, but could never completely chip away at a Flyers lead or build momentum of their own. It seemed like for every Penguins goal scored, the Flyers had an answer.
Bylsma could have better controlled his bench today. The Penguins fell prey to the very tactics they have publicly condemned in the past. This will not win hockey games, especially in the postseason. Where is the finesse and high skill they used to have a strong regular season, at one point going on an 11-game winning streak?
Bylsma also made a mistake when he did not pull Fleury sooner. Instead, he waited until the third period when the Penguins were down two goals, having surrendered six. The team was down 4-2 after one period and found itself in a 5-3 hole with over five minutes left in the second.
At that time, Brent Johnson should have been put in the game. While that wouldn’t have guaranteed a win, it would have shown that the Penguins were willing to try something else before the game got even more out of hand. Instead, Johnson let up two more goals, and the Pens were unable to find anymore offense, losing 8-4, and are now looking ahead to Wednesday's do-or-die Game 4.
The Penguins could once again spend the conference semifinals and subsequent rounds sitting on their couches, wondering what could have been. The odds are very much against them, as only three teams have come back down from three games to none to win a playoff series. Ironically, the last team to do so was the Flyers back in 2010. They accomplished the feat in the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Boston Bruins.
This team is too talented to be down in a series like it is. It will be up to Bylsma to help it find the desire to pull off the impossible, even if the responsibility ultimately comes down to Sidney Crosby and Co.
With a team like the Penguins, the Stanley Cup window is only open for so long. If the Penguins lose this series, Ray Shero should start to wonder if Dan Bylsma is really meant for the job, or if that magical run a few years ago was just a fluke.