The Glass Eye: Penguins/NHL Debacle
There were a lot of other topics I had planned to touch on this week, but the events of the past weekend in the NHL, specifically involving the Penguins, demands attention. I’ll look at Pittsburgh first, then talk about a growing problem the league has to deal with soon.
NO ONE saw this coming – down 3-0 to the Flyers is bad enough, but to allow 20 goals in those games, blow leads in each game, and generally look clueless is an embarrassment to not only the players, but to the organization as a whole – particularly given the thuggish behavior on display Sunday afternoon. Brooks Orpik said after Games Two and Three that there is ‘no finger pointing’ in the locker room, and if so, that’s good – they need to stick together – but in my opinion, these are some of the biggest culprits:
Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek – These two defensemen were signed two summers ago to stabilize the defense and provide a ‘shutdown pairing’. It worked great in 2011, but both have been out of sorts for most of the 11-12 season and both have COMPLETELY collapsed in these playoffs. Michalek has shown signs of life at times, but Martin has been absolutely clueless – he’s been soft, he’s made bad decisions with the puck, and frankly I’ve seen him standing around away from the play while Fleury has been under siege. I know all about the perils of ‘selling low’, but I don’t see how this team can go forward with Martin next season given how terrible he has been – and given the depth on defense at the minor-league level. Michalek probably deserves another chance, as he was hurt to start the season and never seemed to get going.
Evgeni Malkin – I’m a HUGE Malkin fan, but you cannot claim to be MVP-caliber then get dominated by a 19-yr-old checking center for three games. Frankly, Malkin looks frustrated and perhaps a bit tired – he’s carried a HUGE load for this team and compared to many of the Flyers (and to Crosby, who has looked very good), Malkin has looked slow.
Marc-Andre Fleury – Most of the goals have NOT been his fault – he’s been hung out to dry more than spring laundry this series – but he’s also failed to make the big save at the big moment. Take Game Three for example – Pens got off to their usual early lead, then Fleury knocked an incredibly weak shot into his own net – while shorthanded, no less! It KILLED any Pens momentum and the Flyers never looked back. You can count on one hand the times Fleury looked soft in the regular season – but he’s looked plenty shaky at times in this series.
Dan Bylsma – I agree with those who say that in the end the players are responsible for being ‘ready to play’, but if we are going to credit Bylsma for helping the team win the 2009 Cup (I do) and the incredible 2011 and 2012 regular seasons (I do), then does he not deserve a fair amount of criticism for SIX straight playoff losses going back to last season? In addition, whether he ordered any of it or not, he clearly didn’t take aggressive steps to curtail the clownish behavior of his team in Game Three, and he got fined $10,000 for his part in all that nonsense. Bylsma has always talked about the Pens ‘playing their game’ – up-tempo, aggressive offense, but within a very defined defensive structure. That structure has COMPLETELY collapsed during this series, and he has to be held accountable for that. Clearly he’s not going to be fired, nor should he, but in my opinion the ‘honeymoon’ is over after three straight years of playoff failure – and yes, I’m saying the Pens are done, no way they can win four in a row over this team with their defense playing this poorly.
As for the rest of the league, there’s been an overriding theme – less penalties called, and a LOT more nastiness. I’m SO sick of the phrase ‘let the players decide it’ – that’s code for ‘let the players cheat as much as they can get away with’. If you aren’t going to enforce the rulebook, why have it? If tripping the puck carrier is no longer something that gets called every single time (and I’ve seen it go uncalled at least four times this week around the league), then where does it end? When penalties are uncalled for two games of a series and suddenly called in the third game, how are players supposed to know where the line is drawn? The NHL made a serious commitment to calling a ’clean’ game after the lockout – taking away the obstruction, hooking, and other ‘lazy’ penalties, and the game was far better for it. I saw somewhat of a backslide last season, but the second half of this season has seen a steady decline in penalties called AND level of play – which has culminated with the craziness of the past weekend. I implore the NHL – if you want to allow hooking and obstruction, then at least remove it from the rules as a penalty – otherwise, let’s call penalties at ALL times, not just when the refs feel like it, ok?
On a similar note, for YEARS I’ve heard how fighting ‘protects’ players because they can ‘police’ themselves and players who would otherwise take brazen cheap shots live in ‘fear of retaliation’. Watch a replay of Shea Weber slamming Henrik Zetterberg into the glass – watch Arron Asham cross-check Braydon Schenn in the face, or James Neal run around hitting anything in orange, with or without the puck – in general, watch the last two games of this Pens-Flyers series, and all the mayhem they’ve brought forth – and then explain to me how the continued presence of fighting has helped police this game. That argument is FALSE and only used as a crutch to keep pugilism alive in the sport – the truth is, REFS control the game and the level of violence by how tightly they call games, and the NHL needs to empower the refs to do their jobs – and be far more consistent and stern in punishing wanton acts of violence.
Dave Glass can be reached at email@example.com.