Reporting Colin Dunlap
Let’s brush aside the BS and call this what it is.
The Penguins’ superstars have been playing pedestrian.
You go ahead and make a big deal out of the goaltending situation – that isn’t the biggest problem.
You go ahead and make a big deal out of tactical decisions made by Dan Bylsma – those aren’t the biggest problems.
You go ahead and banter over if Tyler Kennedy or Joe Vitale or Mark Eaton or Deryk Engelland should be in or out of the lineup – such a decision isn’t nearly the biggest problem.
As the Penguins have dug themselves a 2-0 hole in the Eastern Conference finals against the Boston Bruins, the biggest problems have been Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang.
And it isn’t even close.
In the games of biggest consequence, the players of deepest importance — and the ones with the fattest wallets — are supposed to elevate their level of play.
The reverse has happened.
You don’t see many Craig Adams or Matt Niskanen sweaters in the stands at CONSOL Energy Center and, you know why? Because guys of that ilk are harmonizing pieces. No more, no less.
Certainly they are fine and distinguished fellows — one even went to Harvard — but very few kids sit in that barn and point to Adams or Niskanen and says to their old man, “Now that’s the guy I want to be!”
Conversely, the masses cling to Crosby and Malkin, to Neal and Letang because, in the flashes of most magnitude, they are the expected heroes.
Remember, everybody loves a winner.
And in two games against the Bruins, these men have all, atypically, seriously underwhelmed.
To wit, with the Penguins being outscored by an aggregate total of 9-1 in the series, and Brandon Sutter notching the lone goal over that span for the home side, it’s obvious none of the four in question have scored a goal.
Further, none of the four helped on Sutter’s goal.
But the point goes deeper than them being pointless.
Also, before advancing any further with this criticism, now would be a good time to mention that Crosby and Malkin are each making $8.7 million this season against the cap, while Neal is making $5M and Letang is collecting $3.5M
That’s $25.9M worth of scratch that has been, collectively, a minus 16 in the two games against the Bruins.
Letang, from this view, has been the one who has probably most underachieved through the two games. His inexplicable decision to try to play an airborne puck with his stick in front of the goal in Game 1 cost the Penguins a goal and, for an encore, his clearance in Game 2 up the center — and not the wall — led to another Bruins goal.
Quite simply, Letang has looked off-kilter.
So has Crosby in these first two games, as demonstrated by the early misplay he had on a puck that led to the Bruins’ opening goal in Game 2 on Monday night just 28 seconds in. Crosby, in all his characteristic brilliance, generally never downright takes a mulligan on a game, as he normally has something of more-than-fair value to contribute.
It would be reasonable to say that, over the past 120 minutes of hockey, Crosby might just have taken the only two back-to-back mulligans of the over 550 NHL games he has played.
Neal set his personal bar high with his performance in the Ottawa series, but in full fairness, has not looked the same, and certainly the results haven’t been there.
And Malkin, for his part, appeared to quit backchecking on Monday night against the Bruins about midway through the second period, floating around in a general malaise that distinguishes him when things aren’t going his way.
He didn’t quit, but it was close.
There is, without any doubt, a lot of blame that should be shouldered in the first two losses to the Bruins. The balance of it, however, falls on the guys who are saddled with the responsibility of stepping up in the biggest games — Crosby, Malkin, Neal and Letang.
You want to be the highest-profile guys and make a bushel full of money, now is the time you are counted on to produce.
If not, expect to be criticized.
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. Check out his bio here (http://pittsburgh.cbslocal.com/personality/colin-dunlap/)