By John Toperzer
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma earned nearly unlimited currency with his performance in 24/7, an HBO mini-series leading up to the 2011 Winter Classic featuring the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Washington Capitals.
Coach Bylsma came off as a calm, cool-and-collected (yet passionate) head coach while Caps coach, Bruce Boudreau, came across as a foul-mouthed, barbeque-eating fool.
The portrayal between the two coaches was striking. It boosted Bylsma’s stock among peers and fans alike, while sabotaging Boudreau’s.
Certainly, ensuing NHLPA player polls from both 2010-11 and 2011-12 supported claims that the Penguins coach was player friendly: Bylsma led both polls with 21 percent of players listing him as the coach they’d most like to play for.
The 2011-12 playoff series against the Philadelphia Flyers and the regular-season games against Philly shortly preceding the postseason changed the way many folks looked at the Penguins and Bylsma.
Then Philadelphia coach, Peter Laviolette, jumped up on his bench while Penguins assistant, Tony Granato, screamed back. Pierre McGuire stood in between the two benches, narrating the uh, hem, discussions. Click here, in case you forgot the incident.
The April 1, 2012 contest (April Fool’s Day, no less), triggered an emotional response by Pittsburgh, from Sidney Crosby on down.
The Flyers way to bring down a better team by preying on its emotion.
The 2011-12 playoff series cemented the theory that the way to beat the Penguins is to get their best players to react emotionally.
The Pens have never been a trustworthy favorite since.
Fast forward to March of 2014.
Pittsburgh took on its intrastate rival, the Flyers, in back-to-back games on March 15 and 16.
In the first game, Philly systematically destroyed the Pens, winning by the score of 4-0. They embarrassed a Penguins squad led by Sidney Crosby (minus-3 rating) and Evgeni Malkin (minus-2).
The game was out of hand after 40 minutes.
Following such a lackluster performance, it was clear that the Pens needed to come out strong the next day against the Flyers. It wasn’t so much about the scoreboard — the Pens clinched first place in the Metropolitan Division for all intents and purposes in February — but it was how the team would react to a shellacking.
Granted, Chris Kunitz and James Neal missed the weekend games, so Pittsburgh was playing without two of its top six forwards.
That said, some kind of response was needed. Anything. So what happened?
Well, the Flyers scored three goals in the first 13 minutes against a passive Pittsburgh squad and the Pens pulled goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins needed to send some kind of message, be it physical or of the hard-working variety, but instead gave up not one, not two, but three goals right out of the shoot.
Where was the passion? Where was the resolve that the team wouldn’t let its biggest rival push it around for the second time in 24 hours?
Where was the heart?
That, my friends, is what really did me in against Dan Bylsma. A coach should be able to get his team fired up against its hated division rival. It doesn’t mean the Penguins had to win or score 10 goals, but they had to show up, have some accountability for a gutless showing the previous day.
None of that happened.
The weekend was but a snapshot of the Pens’ 2013-14 campaign. Eighty-two games and six months makes for a long season.
But the Penguins didn’t show up, didn’t compete.
Many Pens fans wanted coach Bylsma gone after a series sweep to the Boston Bruins last year. It took another season for the ownership to take a hard look at changing things up, but that’s where the organization now stands.
There are many moments along the path where the Penguins came up short. I point to the lack of any kind of response against the Flyers in mid-March as a pretty solid indicator as an example of a coach who had lost his team.
A majority of Penguins fans voted in favor of canning coach Bylsma last year, when I took a year end poll over at Hockey Buzz. Click here.
(Courtesy, Pittsburgh Penguins)