The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers will meet for a winner-take-all Game 7 Tuesday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
To say this series shouldn’t have gone this far would be an understatement.
For the second time in recent history, the Penguins have squandered a 3-1 series lead and find themselves fighting for their playoff lives.
WATCH: SIDNEY CROSBY – EVGENI MALKIN HOLD JOINT PRESS CONFERENCE AHEAD OF GAME 7
The last time this happened was 2011 against the Tampa Bay Lightning. In case you’ve forgotten, the Lightning took Game 7 by a 1-0 score in Pittsburgh.
But, that was also an injury-depleted Penguins roster without the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
On some level, you could make a case that this series is slipping away again without Crosby.
If the Penguins are going to save face and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, Crosby is going to have to lead the way.
Many are questioning whether or not he’s an effective leader. I would venture to say that this team follows him at all times.
When he’s on and playing the game the right way, the team follows suit. When he’s off his game, the team follows him like lemmings off a cliff.
Take the last two games as an example.
The Penguins’ captain has been largely invisible, unless you count the post-whistle shenanigans.
Instead of heading to the locker room to try and regroup for the third period in Game 6, Crosby started a melee by spearing Dominic Moore in the groin. The ensuing fracas landed Chris Kunitz and Crosby in the box for the first two minutes of the third period.
Two-thirds of the Penguins’ top line was in the box, while Malkin was relegated to the bench for the ensuing penalty kill.
Does that sound like an advantageous start to a third period when trailing by two goals with a chance to close out the series?
Watch Dan Bylsma Speak To Media Following Game 6:
This isn’t anything new either. Go back and watch how he played against Philadelphia in 2012 and Boston a year ago. There’s a pattern here and it’s rather apparent.
When the Penguins jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, it was Crosby setting the tone. He started Game 2 like a man possessed, finally found the back of the net in Game 3 and the team followed.
They flat out dominated and suffocated the Rangers for three straight games.
The series looked to be over as the teams skated off the ice at the conclusion of Game 4.
Now, the Penguins have failed to match the desperation of the Rangers in the two games since.
“We talked about it and we knew it was something we had to improve and we didn’t and we paid the price for it,” Crosby said after their 3-1 defeat in Game 6.
Watch Crosby Speak To Media Following Game 6:
Furthermore, Crosby is showing signs of frustration and again, the team is following.
“I think I’d always like to generate more, but [I’m] trying to compete and generate stuff out there, but I’ll leave that to you to decide,” Crosby said.
To me, there isn’t much to decide. One goal in 12 games speaks for itself.
I’ll give him credit because he looked to be building up to a massive breakout. He was dominant in their three wins. It was the Crosby we all know.
However, there hasn’t been a shred of that since Game 4 ended.
I wouldn’t place all the blame on Crosby for this series being tied 3-3.
The defense has been atrocious and slow for much of the last two games – especially Rob Scuderi.
Marc-Andre Fleury has allowed a couple of goals he’d like to have back too. In his case, he’s responded each time and kept the team in the game as long as possible.
Dan Bylsma can only do so much and at some point it’s in the players’ hands. Maybe he’s not motivating the team well enough? I don’t feel this is a case of him being outcoached like previous playoff failures against Philadelphia and Boston.
The Penguins’ game plan has been effective in their three wins. This issue of a lack of compete level and passion is more on the players to me.
And that starts with Crosby.
“We can be better and we know that and we have to go out there and be our best when it means the most,” Crosby said. “All Game Sevens are big. Like I said, we can’t change what’s gotten us to this point. All we can do is make sure we show up for Game 7.”
If he shows up, the rest of the Pens will follow. If he doesn’t, we’ll be left with another summer of “What ifs” and the potential for a lot of organizational changes.
You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice