by: Dejan Kovacevic, TribLIVE Updated:
PITTSBURGH - Just imagine the field day the Philly headline writers would have had with it …
PENGUINS WIN ON CROSBY DIVE
Am I right?
Would have been hilarious, too.
Alas, one must conceive one's own drama when opening the Stanley Cup playoffs against the completely drama-free Columbus Blue Jackets, whose next postseason victory will still be their first after the home side held on, 4-3, Wednesday at Consol Energy Center. This opponent isn't much fun to beat, you know. And being extra candid here, it doesn't look to be any more of a threat to take this series now than 24 hours ago.
The Flyers they ain't.
And yet, there were the Penguins in the waning seconds, fighting off one last Columbus flurry with a Fleury of their own — Marc-Andre stopped all nine shots he faced in the third period and 31 pucks in all — when Sidney Crosby executed a virtuoso headfirst dive to poke a puck past Jack Johnson and safely beyond the blue line.
“We got it done,” the captain said.
Fun stuff. Not exactly a blast, but it did represent the first time that the now-standard, holding-their-breath Pittsburgh playoff crowd could exhale.
And that should tell you something: This all remains a work in progress.
“There were some areas I'd say we were happy with, especially coming back,” Dan Bylsma said. “But there are areas where we need to improve.”
Chief among them, as Bylsma noted, was the play of the first defensive forward back, known as F3 in team lingo. Lapses by the F3 led to most of the early breakdowns, even if the defensemen might have appeared responsible.
There also was a — wait for it — lack of discipline. Kris Letang's retaliatory slash brought one penalty, his offensive-zone interference another. He wasn't alone. Other players pushed back when they should have skated away.
And Bylsma never cited this, but there also was a failure at what had been the Penguins' much-discussed objective No. 1: Hit Johnson. In fact, Johnson was exactly the dynamo they'd feared, registering a goal, an assist and three jarring hits, one so potent — and clean — that it sent Craig Adams' stick flying almost as far as his body.
To rewind to the morning, this was the plan, as expressed by Tanner Glass: “Johnson's a big, physical guy. He logs a lot of minutes. Anytime you can hit him, it makes those minutes tougher.”
It hardly happened, and that's got to change. Wearing down the other team's best defenseman isn't optional.
That said, there also was much to like from this. Even from the most embattled of anyone on the Penguins' side entering this postseason.
Bylsma coached a good game.
There. Someone had to say it.
He removed Letang from the power play right after Letang's giveaway led to a short-handed goal — No. 58 had quite the evening, you'll gather — then took James Neal off a later power play to keep two defensemen at the points.
He didn't like what he saw of Crosby's line early, so he moved Beau Bennett to the third line and Brian Gibbons to the first. Bennett would set up Brandon Sutter's winner in the third period, and Gibbons “gave us more speed, more pressure that we were looking for with Sid's line,” Bylsma said. Crosby concurred.
Bylsma even tried to get Crosby away from Columbus checker — and on this night, cheap-shotting slew-footer — Brandon Dubinsky. Bylsma could have done even better in that regard, but he said the staff was “more concerned about the defensive pairing Sid would face,” and Crosby concurred there, too.
It all worked out.
And while there wasn't any strategic shift, even after Columbus had taken the 3-1 lead early in the second, there were points of emphasis relayed on the bench and in the locker room, most powerfully the one to simplify the game and get pucks deep.
“There were some things between the coaches and the leaders in the room,” Joe Vitale recalled. “They just talked about us needing to settle down.”
In the end, Bylsma shortened his bench and went with seven forwards, no matter how bad it might have looked that Bennett was limited to three shifts.
“We just went with guys that we, in that situation, wanted,” Bylsma offered unapologetically.
Yeah, that meant sitting Letang some more. He logged only 3:55 in the third.
None of that's revolutionary, of course, and it won't erase Bylsma's many playoffs in which he's been repeatedly, often embarrassingly, outmaneuvered.
But it's an encouraging start to what simply must be a transformative spring for this coach. Even if he's making moves that some won't like — and I can tell you I'm no fan of Gibbons on the top line — it's better than just taking up space on the bench while the other guy pushes all the buttons.
To reiterate, this will take time. That's only fair with a group that's been together for … what, just this game?
Evgeni Malkin had two assists, but his timing was a bit off. He'll be better.
Letang looked nothing like he had since returning from the stroke, so one can hope he'll be better, too.
Fleury conceded a couple point-blank goals and a breakaway, but otherwise looked like he might have broken away from some demons.
Rob Scuderi … well, there are other defensemen to take his place.
That's the beauty of being open to change, you know?
(Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.)