Penguins-Leafs: The Valentine's Day Massacre

Joseph SirimarcoContributor IFebruary 9, 2010

Does anybody remember The Valentine's Day Massacre,  February 14, 2009? 

No?  Shame on you.  It was such a memorable day, how could you forget? 

The Penguins jumped out to a quick 2-0 lead over the Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the worst teams in the NHL, and an easy win was in the offing, or so we all thought. 

Then the Penguins exhibited an inexcusable trait that had been growing for some time. The players decided that they simply did not want to play defense.  The Maple Leafs scored six consecutive goals to defeat the Penguins, 6-2. 

Michel Therrien was fired the next day, and the rest is history. 

The optimists in the crowd will say that firing Therrien was the best thing that could have happened.  They will say that Therrien's system was inadequate, that the Penguins could no longer compete under his guidance and that a change was needed. 

I think not.  It was clear to me that it was not Therrien's performance that got him fired.  It was the players' refusal to play defense, even in the least, that got Therrien fired.  This was a problem that had been growing steadily since early December, and it finally took its toll. 

Was Therrien's system at fault, or was it the players?  Therrien's system got the Penguins within one victory of a Stanley Cup Championship the previous season, and he made no changes to it.  How could it not be good enough? 

Therrien's system required diligent attention to defensive responsibilities, but no one wanted to be bothered with responsibilities.  It kind of reminded me of just about every Eddie Johnston-coached team in Penguins history.  They could score more goals more often than Bill Clinton could score White House interns, but they couldn't stop a dead horse. 

Now, don't think that I'm cheerleading for Therrien.  I'm not saying that he should have been retained.  Dan Bylsma has done an outstanding job, the style of play that he brought to the team has been exceptionally entertaining, and you can't argue with success. 

But I think the players are repeating their failures of last season under Therrien, and that bodes ill for a serious attempt to defend their Stanley Cup title.

I see the same lack of desire to play defense growing in the team, and it seems to have begun about the same time as last season.  I see an increasing lack of feistiness and scrappiness to fight back when faced with greater adversity posed by good teams (and sometimes not-so-good teams). 

In recent games again New Jersey, Philadelphia, Montreal, and Washington, I saw the Penguins opponents mash the Penguins players into the boards or lay them out on the ice at every opportunity, at both ends of the ice.  But when the Penguins had the same opportunities to suffocate their opponents in the defensive end, and to take possession of the puck and go on the attack, they seemed not to want to do so. 

Too many times their opponents out-hustled, out-muscled and out-maneuvered the Penguins in their own end, allowing them to build greater and greater offensive pressure and eventually to put the puck in the net. The Penguins could not establish a lead, or hold the lead when they had it. 

The recent game against the Capitals was a glaring example.  They had a three goal lead with 23 minutes left in the game.  Against most teams that would be enough, but the Capitals have the best offense and the best power play in the NHL.  You can't sit back on your laurels against a team like that, but the Penguins did. 

They had the Capitals on the run, with a chance to put the game away.  Instead of relentlessly pressuring the Capitals to force them out of their game, they let the Capitals play their game and tried to absorb the pressure.  Bad move against Ovechkin and Company. 

The Penguins lost the killer instinct, and paid the price for it.  A team cannot do that and still expect to be a winner. 

Fortunately, the situation is not as bad as last season...yet.  But if the players don't rediscover the need to play tough, unyielding defense and put more than a few opponents into the boards or on their backsides more often, they may find themselves unable to compete seriously against the teams that they must defeat to have a chance to raise Lord Stanley's Cup once again.