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Penguins

Shea-ved Ice: Pens Down 2-0, Defense Anyone?

By: Casey Shea
(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

(Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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It’s hard to imagine how things could have possibly gone worse for the Pittsburgh Penguins against the Philadelphia Flyers so far.

I’ve tried coming up with a couple of words that would best summarize the team’s overall performance, but none seem harsh enough.

Embarrassing? Disappointing? Devastating? Deplorable? Disgraceful? Pitiful?

I could go on all day, but nothing seems to fit the bill.

I was in attendance for both games and I don’t think I have ever felt worse leaving a game in my life.

The crowds were completely insane for both games. You couldn’t even hear Public Address Announcer Ryan Mill hollering about the Penguins’ goals. I’m not even kidding. It was deafeningly loud inside Consol for these games.

As a fan, I felt like myself and the other 18,000+ fans gave our all to support the team. My throat still burns as a write this from the amount of yelling that transpired over the last three days.

I only wish I could say the Penguins gave their best effort in either of the two games.

I think my wife nailed it during the ride home last night when she said, “I don’t think it would have been as bad if [the Penguins] had played a really good game and just got beat. But they didn’t.”

What I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around right now is how the Penguins wasted early 2-goal leads in both games.

In both games, the Pens were up 2-0 by the midway mark of the first period. In Game 2, the Penguins scored goals in the first and last minutes of the first period, which historically are backbreakers.

However, on both occasions the Penguins stopped doing the things that were bringing them success. They allowed the Flyers to dictate play and eventually get back and take control of the contests and the series.

Without watching countless replays and highlights and making myself mad, here are some observations I made during these two games.

The Penguins dominated the first periods of both games, outscoring the Flyers 6-1 and outshooting them 24-13.

It wasn’t hard to pick up on what the Pens were trying to achieve. They were chipping pucks deep and going after them, making sure that any Flyer who went back for the puck was going to pay a price.

It’s a rather simple, north-south attack that was entirely effective.

Flyers’ goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov was visibly rattled after the quick goals allowed in both games, but the Penguins let him off the hook twice.

Instead of continuing to play the same style, the Pens started getting cute with the puck and tried to make cross-ice passes in the neutral zone. Philly was sitting on these passes and forcing turnovers as a result.

When they were able to get into the offensive zone, they refused to put the puck on net. Bryzgalov barely had to break a sweat in the second and third periods of both games and he wasn’t even tested once in the brief overtime in Game 1.

With Philly being the beneficiary of countless brutal turnovers, they were able to expose the Penguins’ team defense in a big way.

Like Pittsburgh’s attack, Philly’s isn’t all that complicated off the rush.

The puck carrier will hit the blue line with speed and go wide toward the boards to buy a little time. The Penguins’ defenseman was usually marking the puck carrier well, but the fatal flaw in the defense is their backchecking forwards.

The first forward back is gravitating toward the puck carrier in what I can only assume is an attempt to take away the cutback option and hope to force a turnover.

The problem is that the puck carrier knows a teammate is coming late to the play and will be wide open in a prime scoring area on the ice. It’s happening almost every time the Flyers enter the zone on the rush and the Penguins have done absolutely nothing to shut it down.

Even when the Flyers gain control in the Penguins’ defensive end, they are running little delay plays and finding guys open on the back door.

The Penguins as a defensive unit look completely lost. There is no justifiable reason that Philly should be having it this easy in the offensive end. The Penguins’ forwards coming on the backcheck need to look over their shoulder and know there is a Flyer coming late.

It’s that simple.

Play positional hockey and you’ll suffocate this attack the Flyers are employing at the moment.

Another problem for the Penguins is that they are getting too wrapped up in trying to hit people that it is taking them out of their game.

A Flyer will dole out a decent hit and the recipient is taking numbers and looking to get even immediately. At one point during Game 2 in the second period, one of the Penguins’ defenseman stepped up at the offensive blue line to attempt to deal a knockout blow to a Flyer exiting the zone.

I don’t remember who it was, but they missed horribly and the Flyers almost broke out on a 5-on-1 the other way.

There is a time and a place to get even with someone who just dropped a big hit on you. The time isn’t immediately and it certainly isn’t with a lead when you’re trying to even up a series.

It’s happened in both games so far. The Penguins have gotten too wrapped up in trying to hit anything that moves that it’s taken them out of position and the Flyers have capitalized.

Speaking of trying to even up a series, I can’t believe how poor the team has played with the lead through two games. Philly hadn’t led in the series until Jaromir Jagr put them ahead with about 11 minutes to play in the third period of Game 2. Obviously, they held on and found ways to add to the lead to put the game away.

I haven’t bothered to make my normal rounds of local papers and blogs and I’m pretty much avoiding Twitter today because I’m sure there are people calling out Marc-Andre Fleury for allowing 11 goals in two games.

If you’re of the mentality that Fleury has any blame on his shoulders right now, you should probably stop reading this and learn more about the game of hockey.

Fleury has been completely hung out to dry by every single one of his teammates through two games. There isn’t a single goal I can look at and say, “Oh, Fleury should have stopped that one.”

Did he leave a couple rebounds last night? Yes. Did his defense do anything to clear those rebounds away? No.

As a goaltender, your primary responsibility is to stop the first shot and trust that your defense will clear away rebounds.

Of course, when that first shot is a prime opportunity from the slot, or a breakaway, or a 2-on-1, the goaltender’s job becomes nearly impossible.

Almost every shot Fleury has faced in this series has been a solid scoring opportunity. You can only ask your goalie to do so much before you start looking yourself in the mirror.

The blame isn’t all on the players here either. I still think Dan Bylsma should have better used his timeouts in Games 1 and 2 when he saw the tide starting to turn.

In both games, Peter Laviolette burned his timeout after the Penguins took a 2-0 lead. However, when the Flyers started to mount a comeback, Bylsma sat on his timeout and watched the implosion take place.

Regardless, the leaders on this team need to be better both on and off the ice. The Crosby and Staal lines have been effective and have lit the lamp.

However, Malkin’s line has been practically non-existent at even strength. They were able to cash in twice on the power play last night, but that was the only offense they have generated at all over two games.

Defensively, the forward units have not been great at all, but we’ve already covered that.

On defense, guys like Kris Letang and Brooks Orpik need to step up and rally the corps. Actions speak louder than words, but whatever is being said right now is having no effect.

Bylsma has juggled the defensive pairings at times, but nothing has worked. I’m not fully convinced it’s a particular pairing that is causing the problem as much as it a team defense problem.

This isn’t a problem that just popped up overnight either. The Penguins’ team defense has been suspect for weeks and it seems like nothing has been done about it.

There’s no time to waste in trying to work on fixing it. It just needs to be done and it needs to be done now.

There needs to be a team commitment to playing defense or else this series may not even come back to Pittsburgh.

No one has said it yet, but I can guarantee you if the Penguins get bounced in this first round, people are going to start wondering when the Washington Capitals moved to Pittsburgh.

Since they won the Stanley Cup in 2009, the Penguins have been eliminated in upset fashion by the Montreal Canadiens in the second round in 2010 and lost in the first round to the Bolts last year.

This would be the third straight season the Penguins have not made a serious run at the Cup. You can write off last season if you want because the Penguins were ravaged by injuries and were without Crosby and Malkin.

Regardless, this season everyone is healthy and the Penguins are getting taken to task by the Flyers.

The series isn’t over yet, but dropping the first two at home doesn’t exactly bode well.

Of course, the Penguins could rip off four straight wins kind of like the Flyers did to the Penguins in 2000.

Time will tell.

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice

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