Colin Dunlap: Players Should Get Most Blame, Not Bylsma
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Pittsburgh loves blame.
Ask Bruce Arians. Or Neil O’Donnell. Or PennDOT.
The Pittsburgh blame motor got revved up again late Sunday night, just after the Penguins lost to Ottawa, 2-1, in double overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Caught in the powerful blame vortex of the aftermath that pushed the series to 2-1 — in the Penguins’ favor — were Penguins coach Dan Bylsma and players Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Chris Kunitz.
The prevailing thought here, and with the full understanding that it is unpopular, is this: The players deserve the heavy balance of the blame, not Bylsma.
Did Bylsma, perhaps, make an error in personnel in a key late-game situation? Yes.
But, in pivotal late game situations, are top-shelf talents such as Malkin and Letang, and very good NHL players like Martin and Kunitz, supposed to lose all semblance of good decision-making? No. Never.
To rehash what almost-certainly needs no rehashing, the Senators trailed 1-0 when defenseman Erik Karlsson took a slashing penalty with 1:27 left in regulation. From there, as the clock wound under a minute, the Senators pulled goaltender Craig Anderson, eradicating the man advantage just before Daniel Alfredsson created space with a drop pass in the neutral zone to Sergei Gonchar, who gained the zone. Gonchar then flicked a pass to Milan Michalek, who deftly slipped a pass back to a darting Alfredsson, who was wide open and had no trouble shoveling it past Tomas Vokoun for the game-tying goal.
From there, the game traversed into one overtime, then another, before Ottawa won on Colin Greening’s goal.
But it was that first Ottawa goal people are — and should be — talking about.
In postgame interviews, Bylsma said that, during the late-game stretch, the Penguins were employing their “possession power play” technique, yet on a few occasions, players dumped the puck in, giving Ottawa virtually free possession and forcing Pittsburgh to play defense with offensive-minded players.
Or, could it have been where Malkin and Kunitz, the guys who dumped the puck during the power play, simply became frazzled? Could it have been where they — and not Bylsma — erred by giving the puck up so easily when given the directive of holding onto it?
Still, even with whatever the mix-up was in that regard, the Penguins still held the lead as Alfredsson pushed ahead with a head of steam with about a half-minute to play.
At that point, from my vantage point, this is all about winning one-on-one battles; this is all on the players simply needing to grit through another possession. That isn’t on Bylsma, rather, it is on Malkin, Letang, Kunitz and Martin.
If you go back and watch the play, mistake one was by Kunitz, letting Alfredsson make the drop pass and then getting behind him, with virtual ease and a clear path to the goal.
Mistake two was a tandem job by both Martin and Letang, who failed to get their stick down in the passing lane as Michalek’s pass zipped through to Alfredsson — just past both Penguins — for a tap-in.
And, lastly, Malkin made a mistake by, there’s no other way to say it, standing around in the middle of the ice. On the play, Malkin did, virtually nothing. That isn’t good enough.
Four players, four mistakes.
And these weren’t four guys fighting for a spot in your lineup, either. Again, Malkin and Letang are world-class talents and Kunitz and Martin are very good NHL players.
So go ahead and crow all you want about Bylsma’s coaching at the end of regulation in Game 3.
You might have a valid point.
Know what certainly is a valid point, beyond any shadow of a doubt? Four guys had a chance to make a play, and none did.
That much isn’t on Dan Bylsma.
Former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Sports Writer Colin Dunlap is the featured columnist at CBSPittsburgh.com. He can also be heard weeknights from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. on Sports Radio 93-7 “The Fan.” You can e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.