When great expectations fail to live up to their perceived potential, there's an inevitable wave of backlash. In the NHL, this just comes with the territory, though it's played out on a much bigger stage.
The Pittsburgh Penguins are painfully learning this lesson after they were swept by the Boston Bruins in the Eastern Conference Final. With a star-studded team made deeper by a successful round of negotiations at the trade deadline, the Penguins entered the postseason as the Eastern Conference's No. 1 team while scoring more goals than any other team in the NHL.
After getting through some minor difficulties posed by the New York Islanders in the quarterfinal round, the Penguins seemed to have it together as they defeated the Ottawa Senators in five games to earn the ECF berth. But four games later, Pittsburgh was on the outside looking in, mustering together just two goals over the four games against Tuukka Rask and the Bruins.
The NHL's highest octane offense went cold at the worst possible time in the series and with their season now over, Pittsburgh will look for answers to understand how it all went wrong.
It won't take much to come to the conclusion that the fault lies with head coach Dan Bylsma.
Bylsma took over behind the Pittsburgh bench about three quarters of the way through the 2008-09 season and had an immediate impact, leading the Penguins to an 18-3-4 mark in his 25 games, as Pittsburgh finished second in the Atlantic. They would go on to defeat the Detroit Red Wings that year for the Stanley Cup.
On April 22, 2013, Bylsma became the fastest coach ever to reach 200 wins, but the Penguins would lose in seven games in the quarterfinal round of the playoffs—a mark they would repeat during the 2011-12 campaign.
While Pittsburgh was finally able to break out of the first round this season, the sweep by the Bruins has many looking for answers. Bylsma's playoff record since winning the Cup has been less than stellar, at 20-21—bringing his overall mark to 36-29.
It's easy to place the brunt of the blame for Pittsburgh's 2013 exit on Bylsma's shoulders, since he couldn't get enough out of his star-studded roster to produce much of anything against Boston. But that would do a disservice to the Bruins and to his own players, who failed to make adjustments.
When you're playing at the NHL level, you don't need to be swaddled and have your hand held anymore. When things don't go your way, you make changes to improve. The Penguins, namely Sidney Crosby, never did that in the sweep.
Prolific scorers during the regular season and league-MVPs Crosby and Evgeni Malkin accounted for one point and one assist in the entire series. Malkin seemingly had a wide open net in the dying throes of Game 4 but couldn't get the puck off for what seemed like hours before Zdeno Chara blocked Malkin's shot and sent the Bruins to the Stanley Cup Finals.
The game served as a frustrating microcosm of the series, with Pittsburgh struggling to score and at times its stars struggling even to shoot. Malkin, who ripped off 10 shots in the heartbreaking Game 3 overtime loss, got just one to the net in Game 4.
James Neal had 20 shots on goal for the series, but each time the sniper would be denied. He also went minus-seven over the four games. Jarome Iginla, after all the controversy and speculation that he would play in Boston, had just five shots for the series against the franchise he spurned.
The Bruins forced Pittsburgh early on in the series into playing Boston's game rather than Pittsburgh playing its own, resulting in horrid, uncharacteristic play. Crosby started jawing with Chara—a dance he wouldn't like to go for. Malkin got in a fight with Patrice Bergeron, keeping him in the penalty box for valuable minutes of a one-goal Game 1.
These are guys who've won the Stanley Cup before and know what it takes to get the job done, all the way through. Eleven players who laced them up in the Boston series played on the 2008-09 championship squad.
One of those guys was Marc-Andre Fleury, who was the biggest non-factor for the Penguins throughout the postseason. After earning a shutout in Pittsburgh's 5-0 victory in Game 1 of the first-round series against the Islanders, Fleury imploded, letting in 14 goals over the next three games.
He was replaced by Tomas Vokoun and would only see action again in the Game 2 6-1 beatdown by Boston in the Eastern Conference Final.
The Penguins power play came into the Boston series soaring, scoring 13 goals over 46 tries with the man-advantage—good 28.2 percent of the time. That changed against the Bruins, where it lethargically produced no results, going 0-for-15.
You can blame Bylsma all you want for not mixing it up with the man-advantage sooner, but it's got to be on the players to get the job done and make the adjustments. Pittsburgh got beat down low and did not drive to the dirty areas as often as needed to beat a hot goaltender in Rask.
Crosby and Malkin didn't play like the superstars they are, with the former turning the puck over too often and occasionally having drastic results after doing it, like the Brad Marchand goal in Game 2.
The bout of spending near the trade deadline that brought in Iginla, Brenden Morrow and Douglas Murray failed to accomplish anything in the Boston series. Guys like Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, who elevated their game thanks to Crosby's 41 assists in the regular season, couldn't find the back of the net after combining to do it 42 times before the playoffs.
Pittsburgh had too much talent and too much depth to simply be swept aside by Boston, regardless of how well the Bruins played. But the notion that Bylsma needs to be fired after the recent heartbreak is an absurd one, one that would be made by rash action and ill-judged decision making.
In his tenure of nearly five years at the Pittsburgh helm, Bylsma has led the Penguins to a 201-93-25 mark during the regular season. Forgive the basketball reference, but at just 42 he draws comparisons to Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, also 42.
With Miami down a game in the NBA Finals, if Spoelstra and the Heat lose the championship this year, I'd imagine that some of the backlash will come toward their coach, who would thereby have lost two championships and won one in the three consecutive years the Heat have made it there.
While the Penguins have made it to the Championship round of their sport just once in Bylsma's five years, the parity in hockey prevents them from getting there every season—as the Heat seemingly will and have been doing lately in the NBA.
But the two teams do share one other thing in common.
Both have the best player in their respective leagues. In Pittsburgh's case, with Malkin, they have two of the top five. Throw in a star-studded supporting cast and it's easy to make the comparison between the Penguins and Heat.
But when star players don't perform, it's time to place the accountability and blame on them. There's no need to hide behind the human shield of a coach who couldn't extract every last drop of blood, sweat and tears from his players over a demanding postseason ride.
That has to hold true with Bylsma and with Crosby, Geno and the rest of the Penguins. Accountability must be met and it's the players who'll need to answer.