In late 2007, the Phoenix Coyotes claimed goaltender Ilya Bryzgalov off waivers from Anaheim. Wayne Gretzky was the coach of the Coyotes at the time and immediately knew the impact Bryzgalov could have, even on the public perception of his team.
“I’m a better coach today than I was yesterday,” Gretzky said half-jokingly to reporters after learning his team had snagged the Russian goalie with great upside. Bryzgalov — now the $51 million Flyers media-darling/goaltender — propelled the Coyotes to unimaginable accomplishments during his time in Phoenix.
Elite goalies create Jack Adams Award coaches and legendary General Managers. They spackle holes on a roster and give a decent team the confidence of a champion. For much of the past four seasons, Marc-Andre Fleury has been an elite goalie.
Blame it on a heavy workload down the stretch or an untimely lack of confidence, but Fleury hasn’t played like the goalie the Penguins have come to expect and NEED in order to win hockey games as of late. Average performances by Fleury in the first two games against the Flyers eventually gave way to a total meltdown in Game 3.
With the Penguins facing elimination on Wednesday, reporters who boldly insisted the Penguins would waltz through the playoffs are now scrambling to justify how their predictions ended up so wrong.
In a matter of ten days, these writers now feel Dan Bylsma has morphed into a paralyzed coach incapable of making adjustments, Sidney Crosby has done more harm than good since his return, the team has suffered a catastrophic top-to-bottom system failure, and the Penguins shouldn’t bother showing up for Game 4.
Perhaps I’ve been watching a different series.
I’ve seen the home team carry the play in the two games played in Pittsburgh. I’ve seen a talented Flyers team cash in on offensive opportunities at a staggering rate. And I’ve seen special teams play a critical role in the outcome of all three games.
The Penguins may be down 3-0 in a first-round series to the hated Flyers, but reports of their ‘collapse’ have been greatly exaggerated.
According to the Flyers blog Broad Street Hockey, Pittsburgh had a 13-8 lead in scoring chances and a 23-13 lead in shots through two periods of Game 1. The Flyers had the good fortune of Daniel Briere’s offisides goal and a hopping puck onto the stick of Jakub Voracek in overtime and escaped with a 4-3 overtime win. After the game, Penguins players and coaches refused to blame the referees or bad luck, but they knew they squandered an opportunity to grab the series lead.
Game 2 was a different twist on a similar tale. The Penguins blew another lead on home ice and this time special teams were to blame. Shorthanded goals by Max Talbot and Claude Giroux sucked the life out of the crowd and the Penguins unraveled in the third period, yet they carried the play for much of the game.
The following day, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was asked: “Dan, when you have a lead late in a game, do you have it in your repertoire to get very conservative, to go into a trap, or is that so against your system that you don’t want to do that?”
Bylsma politely pointed out that the Penguins have played a 1-2-2 trap in the neutral zone for much of the season. What he didn’t mention was this also includes every game of the Philadelphia series.
The system isn’t the problem. The coach isn’t the problem. The effort isn’t the problem.
The Penguins are facing a good team with a sound gameplan and they’ve seen a number of bounces and calls go the Flyers’ way. Critical mistakes have resulted in opportunities for Philadelphia, and more often than not they’ve capitalized. Fleury hasn’t been a star in net and it’s put the Penguins’ roster holes — which were not addressed at the trade deadline — under a microscope.
A bounce or two the other way and Pittsburgh could easily be sitting in control with a 2-1 series lead. But they’re not and they face a very difficult task of winning four straight games.
That’s the beauty of the NHL playoffs. Anything can happen. All a coach or general manager can do in today’s salary cap world is put his team in position to have the best chance of winning.
“The fact of the matter is we made some mistakes that have hurt us,” Crosby said after Game 3 on Sunday. “There’s been different reasons for that, whether it’s been bad bounces or they made a couple of really good plays. Whatever the case is there’s no point dwelling on it now.”
“We know what we need to do. We need to win a hockey game.”
Because in the end that’s all it is: a hockey game. Enjoy it.