PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins can only hope they have five more games remaining to get this right.
The Penguins, a popular pick to raise the Stanley Cup only a few days ago, suddenly find themselves in a two-game hole after being swept at home by the Philadelphia Flyers to begin their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series.
What's remarkable is how they're losing: By opening up substantial early leads in both Game 1 and Game 2, only to have the Flyers dominate play the rest of the way. Pittsburgh owns a 6-1 scoring advantage in the first period; Philadelphia has an 11-2 edge in the second and third periods and overtime.
The only time in franchise history the Penguins dropped the first two games at home and recovered to win a series was against Washington in the conference quarterfinals in 1996, even though Boston pulled off just such a comeback last year against Montreal and went on to lift the Stanley Cup. And at least there's this: The Penguins have been swept in a four-game playoff series only once, by Boston in 1979.
But as they try to figure out how to extend this series for five more games, here are five reasons why the Penguins are in trouble:
1) THEIR STARS AREN'T STARRING. Unlike last season's first-round ouster by Tampa Bay, the Penguins appear to be relatively healthy, with both Sidney Crosby and NHL scoring champion Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. Only they're not being stars. Malkin looks frustrated as the Flyers keep targeting him for contact on almost every shift. Crosby scored early goals in each of the first two games, but couldn't find the net when the games were being decided. The Penguins are built to have No. 87 and No. 71 win games for them, especially in the playoffs, but, so far, it's not happening; Malkin is a minus-5. And James Neal, who is coming off a 40-goal season? He has one goal in nine career playoff games. Malkin's other linemate, Chris Kunitz, scored two goals in Game 2 yet, remarkably, was a minus-5.
2) THEY'RE OUT OF THEIR LEAD. The Penguins led 3-0 in the first period of Game 1, 3-1 in the first period of Game 2. And they lost both times. An anomaly? Hardly. Four times since March 18, the Penguins have built multi-goal leads against the Flyers, and they've lost each time. The Flyers keep rallying by staying patient and waiting for the free-wheeling Penguins to start making mistakes -- risky cross-ice passes, questionable decisions while in defensive zone coverage, a stubborn refusal to avoid carrying the puck into traffic in the neutral zone (Malkin is a prime offender). The Flyers simply aren't worried when the Penguins get ahead, and it shows. And here's another worry for Pittsburgh: Philadelphia is 17-0 when it leads 2-0 in a series.
"We've got to find a way to do better with a lead, no doubt," Crosby said. "We know they're going to keep going. We know that."
3) THEY'RE NOT GETTING SEPARATION. Even while owning the final line change at home, the Penguins are constantly contending with Malkin's line being shadowed by Flyers rookie center Sean Couturier -- a younger version of the Penguins' own Jordan Staal. The 19-year-old Couturier not only is controlling Malkin, he is only the second teenager in Stanley Cup history to score three goals in a game. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma must be more creative to find ways to get Malkin on the ice when Couturier isn't.
"I don't know if I know any words to describe his game," 40-year-old Flyers forward Jaromir Jagr said of Couturier, who is less than half his age. "Awesome, maybe -- something like that?"
4) THERE'S NO DEFENSE FOR WHAT'S HAPPENING. For most of the season, the Penguins were a solid, stay-within-the-Bylsma system team defensively -- a prime reason why they accumulated 108 points despite not having Crosby for three-quarters of the season. During their 11-game winning streak from Feb. 21-March 17, they allowed only 17 goals. Over their last 11, they've given up 48. With opponents getting so many scoring chances, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury simply has had no chance at times, and he appears to be losing confidence. If the Penguins don't start playing with some pride and a purpose on defense, it won't matter how many goals Crosby and Malkin score.
"We've got to tighten up and try to play in their end," center Jordan Staal said.
5) THEIR SPECIAL TEAMS ARE ESPECIALLY BAD. As Bylsma desperately tries to find a workable power-play unit -- Crosby began the first couple of Game 2 power plays on the bench -- the Flyers keep turning games around with their special teams play. They scored on their first two power plays of the series, including Brayden Schenn's all-important tying goal in the third period of Game 2. And they struck for shorthanded goals by Maxime Talbot and Claude Giroux in Game 2. Whether it's personnel, or mindset or coaching, the Flyers are dominating the game-within-a-game special teams contest -- and, while they're doing it, the series, too.