Penguins vs. Bruins: Who Deserves the Most Blame for Pittsburgh's No-Show?

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Penguins vs. Bruins: Who Deserves the Most Blame for Pittsburgh's No-Show?

The Pittsburgh Penguins are traveling to Boston for Game 3 of their Eastern Conference finals series against the Bruins down 0-2 after dropping the first two games on home ice.

It's a situation few of the team's fans would have expected at this point in the series, but the fact of the matter is that Pittsburgh has been severely outplayed by Boston in five of the six periods.

Trailing in a series for the first time during the 2013 NHL playoffs following a Game 1 loss, the Penguins were expected to play with more intensity and give a better effort in Game 2. But, they failed miserably and the result was an embarrassing 6-1 defeat.

Of all the things that could go wrong for the Penguins, it was their failure to score goals, which fans did not expect. After all, Pittsburgh scored more goals than any other team during the regular season and entered this Eastern Conference finals as the highest-scoring club that also had the best power-play percentage.

With a superstar-laden forward group that includes future Hall of Famers such as Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jarome Iginla, the Penguins' struggles offensively have been a huge surprise in this series, even though the Bruins are arguably the best defensive team in the NHL.

But not scoring enough goals isn't the only concern for the conference's top seed. Poor coaching, superstars not living up to expectations and weak performances from midseason roster additions are also hurting this team.

So who's to blame for the deficit that the Penguins are currently facing? Let's power rank the people most responsible for the team's struggles.

 

1. Sidney Crosby

Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

Sidney Crosby has not found the scoresheet in this series, which has arguably been the worst two-game period of his Hall of Fame career. If he's held without a point in Game 3, it will be the first time since the 2009 Stanley Cup Final against the Detroit Red Wings that No. 87 has been scoreless in three consecutive playoff games.

As the player who many consider to be the best on the planet, Crosby needs to be much more productive offensively. He led the team in scoring with 56 points during the regular season despite missing 12 games with a jaw injury and started the playoffs with 15 points in his first 10 games.

The Bruins are being physical with Crosby and also eliminating his time and space with the puck as soon as he gets it on the blade of his stick. This is frustrating the young superstar, and it's thrown him off his game.

As the home team in the next two games in Boston, the Bruins will have the last line change to match up reigning Frank J. Selke Trophy winner Patrice Bergeron against Crosby as much as possible.

The Penguins need more scoring and better leadership from their captain or a once-promising season will near its conclusion on Wednesday.

 

2. Kris Letang

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Kris Letang was among the three players nominated for the Norris Trophy this season, but in the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals, the star blueliner has been one of the worst players on the ice.

Letang has a team-worst minus-five rating in this series, and he's been on the ice for six of the Bruins' nine goals. In fact, no player in the postseason has been on the ice for more goals against (19) than the Penguins' top defenseman.

The 26-year-old has been overwhelmed in this series by the strength of the Bruins forwards and their aggressive forecheck. But even when Letang isn't battling an opposing player for possession of the puck, he has not made many good first passes out of the defensive zone to help the Penguins start the rush up ice.

His three giveaways in two games have created scoring chances for the Bruins, one of which led to a goal by Nathan Horton in the first period of Monday's game. A poor pass from Letang intended for Brooks Orpik was intercepted by Boston defenseman Torey Krug. Moments later, Horton put the puck past Vokoun to widen the Bruins' advantage to 2-0.

Letang's high-risk, high-reward style of play benefits the Penguins quite a bit, especially offensively given his scoring contributions during the playoffs (tied for team lead in scoring with 16 points). But when he's jumping into the play and not paying attention to his defensive assignments, Letang drifts out of position. Then, the opposing team has too much time and space to generate offense.

As a top-pairing defenseman who plays well over 20 minutes each night, most of which comes against the opponent's best forwards, Letang's defensive performance has to be much better for the Penguins to stop the Bruins' top line of Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Horton. This trio has combined for 10 points in this series, including two goals in Game 2. (Letang was on the ice for both goals.)

Letang must give a strong effort defensively and be smart about when he joins the rush in the attacking zone for Pittsburgh to win Game 3 and avoid an 0-3 series deficit.

 

3. General Manager Ray Shero

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One of the criticisms of Ray Shero's trade deadline moves to acquire forwards Jarome Iginla, Brenden Morrow and defenseman Douglas Murray was that they made the Penguins a slower team.

Unfortunately for Shero, who was nominated for this year's General Manager of the Year Award largely because of the deadline deals he made, he has not seen his new acquisitions make a strong impact in this series.

Pittsburgh wanted to get stronger and tougher at the deadline because the Bruins were likely going to stand in its way on the path to the Stanley Cup Final.

But the additions of Iginla and Morrow (ages 35 and 34, respectively), who are far less mobile than they were earlier in their careers, have lessened the team's overall speed. These veterans won't beat opposing defensemen with quickness and agility. The Penguins have extraordinary skill, but their lack of quickness makes them easier to defend. That's especially true against a Boston team that has good defensive structure and makes responsible plays in its own end. 

The Toronto Maple Leafs took Boston to seven games because their speed through the neutral zone was impressive and it allowed them to generate scoring chances in transition. The Bruins lack team speed and would prefer not to play a high-tempo game.

Pittsburgh doesn't have the same players to execute Toronto's game plan versus Boston, just like the New York Rangers' lack of speed resulted in them being eliminated by the Bruins in five games during the second round.

Murray is a quality blueliner with impressive size who plays a physical game, but he is a slow skater and is not able to keep up with quick forward, such as Bruins wingers Tyler Seguin and Brad Marchand.

Shero didn't need to bolster his offense at the trade deadline because it was scoring at a high rate well before Iginla and Morrow arrived.

He needed to upgrade his blue line because the team shouldn't have expected Vokoun and Fleury to play well in front of a group that lacks a shutdown player. Instead, the only addition Shero made on defense was Murray, who is past his prime and lacks athleticism.

The Penguins don't have a roster built for the physical play and defensive battles that are common in the playoffs, and the general manager who constructed this team deserves a lot of the blame for that.

 

4. Head Coach Dan Bylsma

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Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma might be coaching for his job in this series because his team is showing an embarrassing level of effort and intensity against the Bruins. The team's execution has been horrible, it has shown no resiliency and there's been a surprising lack of mental toughness despite the team's championship experience.

When these types of issues become major problems, the coach needs to shoulder a good portion of the blame.

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His handling of the goaltending situation has also been poor. After benching starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury in the first round, which was the correct decision, he stayed with Vokoun as his starter, which resulted in Pittsburgh going 6-1 coming into the Boston series.

After a Game 1 loss in which Vokoun could only be blamed for one of the three Bruins goals (first goal by David Krejci), Bylsma pulled his veteran in Game 2 after none of the three goals he gave up were his responsibility. He  pretty much admitted that after the game, per Dejan Kovacevic of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review:

Now that Fleury has made an appearance in this series and played poorly (three goals against on 17 shots), the Penguins' goaltending controversy is more of a distraction than it was before Monday's defeat. Going back to Vokoun to start Game 3 would be the right decision, and it's really a no-brainer.

Bylsma also has to swap Iginla and Chris Kunitz so the former Flames captain plays alongside Sidney Crosby for an entire game, which should have been the plan from the moment the future Hall of Fame winger arrived in Pittsburgh.

Crosby and Iginla were successful together at the 2010 Winter Olympics with Team Canada and their chemistry on the ice is impressive. Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis are quality players and were very productive offensively during the regular season with No. 87, but Bylsma has to find a way to get Iginla going and improve his confidence.

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The Iginla trade was made to give Crosby an elite winger who could score goals consistently, which is what Malkin has with James Neal on the team's second line. Putting Iginla and Neal together with Malkin doesn't make sense when the Penguins offense is struggling against an elite defensive team such as the Bruins.

Bylsma must make lineup changes for Game 3 to give the Penguins a different look and a better chance to score goals. If he pushes the right buttons, his team's chance of getting back into this series will significantly improve.

 

5. Evgeni Malkin

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The reigning Hart Trophy winner was the Penguins' best player in Game 1 because he was creating lots of high-quality scoring chances with his playmaking ability and aggressiveness in the attacking zone. That same energy and focus was absent on Monday when Malkin was a non-factor in all three zones and wasn't fully engaged in the flow of play.

Bruins captain and top defenseman Zdeno Chara has been on the ice for most of the Russian center's shifts in this series, and he hasn't been on the ice for an even-strength goal by Malkin since 2007. This is a matchup that Boston is dominating at the moment, and it's one that Pittsburgh must win to have a chance of making a dramatic series comeback.

The lack of scoring wasn't the most discouraging problem from Malkin's Game 2 performance; it was his terrible defense. He didn't backcheck and made no effort to prevent the Bruins from skating through the neutral zone without any resistance.

There's no excuse for one of the five best players in the NHL to make no contribution at both ends of the ice in an important playoff game.

 

6. Goaltending

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Pittsburgh's goaltending is the least of the team's worries at the moment despite the fact that it has been outscored 9-1 in two games. The best decision that Bylsma can make for Game 3 is to start Vokoun, who can be trusted to make important late-game saves far more than Fleury.

The former No. 1 overall draft pick has allowed 43 goals in his last 11 playoff appearances, and there's absolutely no reason for Fleury's teammates to have confidence in him given his inability to make big saves on a consistent basis.

The goal he gave up to Marchand high glove side with nine seconds left in the first period of Game 2 ruined all the momentum that Brandon Sutter's goal gave the Penguins just moments earlier. If that shot doesn't go in, Pittsburgh feels better about its chances of making a comeback going into the locker room down 3-1 instead of 4-1.

Sure, Vokoun needed to make a save on Marchand's breakaway attempt that resulted in the Bruins scoring the first goal of the game just 28 seconds after the first puck drop, but he wasn't terrible in Game 2.

As long as he doesn't make huge mistakes that result in goals, Bylsma should play him. He should not lose ice time when his teammates fail to give him a chance with too many defensive breakdowns.

Who gives the team the best chance to win? That's what Bylsma needs to consider when weighing his goaltending options.

The easy answer to this question is Vokoun. He's not a great goalie, but he's much more capable of making saves consistently than Fleury.

 

Nicholas Goss is an NHL Lead Writer at Bleacher Report. Nick was a credentialed reporter at the 2011 Stanley Cup Final and 2012 NHL playoffs, and he is also a credentialed writer at the 2013 NHL playoffs in Boston.

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