On Thursday afternoon Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma was asked what has been the most concerning thing he’s seen from his team in their opening round Stanley Cup playoff series against the Columbus Blue Jackets – which stands even at 2-2.
Bylsma didn’t hesitate to answer.
“The work, compete and battle level has been the most troubling thing from our team,” he said. “That’s got to be raised up to a level that is necessary at this time of year, this type of playoff hockey.”
Bylsma, whose Penguins will host the Blue Jackets in a pivotal Game 5 Saturday night at CONSOL Energy Center, doesn’t typically call out his players publicly in such a fashion.
The message was received.
"We know that's something that needs to be improved," captain Sidney Crosby said. "It's not a surprise to us. It's something we need to be much better in."
“Dan’s right because last game we didn’t battle,” said center Evgeni Malkin. “We came to the corners and we lost battles. We just played 20 minutes, and after we didn’t play. I don’t know why. Maybe we just thought it’s an easy game up 3-0 and we would win. But it’s the playoffs. We need to still play 60 minutes and win every battle, focus every shift.”
Bylsma isn’t the only person being vocal about the Penguins’ effort through the first four games. The players have also spoken up.
“We’ve called out each other in (the locker room),” defenseman Rob Scudrei said. “That’s healthy on a team. It’s up to us to respond. We’re the ones on the ice. We’ve had a plan all year. It’s up to us to execute it and come out with a good game. That’s what we need at home.”
Ironically, the Penguins have played their best hockey in the series when they’ve trailed on the scoreboard.
“I think the best time in this series that we’ve got after it and won it was when we got down 2-0 in Game 3,” Bylsma said.
The desperation the Penguins played with while trailing in Games 1 and 3 is what the team wants to harness for an entire contest.
“You can see when we’re down that we’re on our toes, we’re aggressive, we’re in their face,” Scuderi said. “They haven’t had a chance to do a thing. We have to find a way to find that down-one mentality the entire time.
“If you’re going to be a championship team it shouldn’t be (hard to play desperate). If you want to win one round, let alone four, you’re going to have to find a way to get that out there and raise your level of play.”
All four games of this series have featured the winning team overcoming a 3-1 score, the first time in NHL history that a postseason series featured four consecutive games won by a team trailing by two or more goals per Elias Sports Bureau.
While the Penguins have played remarkable when trailing in a series, their inability to hold onto a 3-1 lead in Game 2 and 3-0 lead in Game 4 is worrisome.
One problem the Penguins have had with securing the lead has been their inability to maintain offensive zone time, wind down the clock and wear down the Blue Jackets.
“I think the biggest thing is our forecheck,” center Brandon Sutter said. “The first period (of Game 4) we did a good job, and then we sat back, didn’t get much forecheck going after that. That’s a mentality going into the game that we have to be more aggressive and go after them a little bit more.”
The one bright side from losing Game 4 is that a win would have given the Penguins a 3-1 series lead and provided cover for some of the team’s blemishes in the series. But the loss brought those issues into the sunlight, and could be a long-term benefit.
“You certainly would like to be up 3-1 and feel a little bit better about that today,” Bylsma said. “But I’m not sure that would have shown us the level we’re not at. There’s a price to be paid. It’s a hardness to your game that we have to get to. Both within that room and the players within that room, they send those words.”