The expectations are ultra-high in Pittsburgh. Mario Lemieux demands them that way. In one lobby of the palatial Consol Energy Center is a life-size virtual Stanley Cup, a touchscreen that allows you to “spin” the trophy to learn about its history and play video highlights of the Penguins' three championship teams.
Adding to that legacy is what's expected. I'm still surprised I'm not watching the Pens trying to add to it in this Stanley Cup final. They were the best team in the Eastern Conference by nine points during the regular season, going 36-12. The Boston Bruins, remember, lost three times to the Sabres and didn't even win the Northeast Division.
But when the Pens and Bruins met in the East final, it was no contest. It was a four-game sweep with Pittsburgh incredibly held to just two goals. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were blanked. It was a performance that was hard to fathom.
This wasn't the blanking of, say, Tim Connolly and Derek Roy. This was Crosby and Malkin.
The Penguins went to back-to-back Cup finals in 2008 and 2009, losing to Detroit in the first one and holding on for a Game Seven win over the Wings in the latter. Since then, they've only won three playoff series in the last four years and two of those came this year. They were first-round losers to Tampa Bay in 2011 and Philadelphia last spring.
So after another great season and another playoff flop, there was plenty of discussion about whether coach Dan Bylsma was the right man for the job anymore. Forget about the fact he graduated from the AHL to the Stanley Cup in a four-month span just four years ago, or that he had the second-best team in the league this year. Bylsma is just 20-21 in playoff games since winning the Cup. Not nearly good enough with all this talent.
(Taking a good look within is called having standards. Keeping a coach year after year who did nothing in the playoffs – if he even got there at all – is having lax standards.)
The loss to Boston was not Bylsma's finest moment. He couldn't solve the riddle of why his power play was terrible and waited too long to shuffle his lines. Just like last year's series against Philadelphia, the Penguins got off their game and got involved in too much post-whistle testiness. Bylsma didn't do enough to corral his players' emotions and get them pointed in the right direction.
The players didn't produce and the coach bears some responsibility for that, although he can't do much about the sieve-like performance in goal from Marc-Andre Fleury. So for a couple of days, Bylsma was more than a little uncertain about his status. He admitted his young son even asked if he was going to be the coach anymore.
Then the Pens made their decision. They're moving forward.
It started Wednesday with the announcement that Bylsma was getting a two-year contract extension. It continued Thursday with the announcement that Malkin has signed an eight-year, $76 million extension. He will have a $9.5 million cap hit – or $800,000 more than Crosby – through 2022.
This clearly was an issue where the players and General Manager Ray Shero are endorsing Bylsma, so they quickly moved on Malkin. That's how it works. Look no further than New York, where goaltender Henrik Lundqvist gave a lukewarm endorsement of an extension and coach John Tortorella was quickly jettisoned. No coincidence.
“I like Dan,” Malkin said Thursday. “It's my mistake that I scored zero goals.”
Crosby and Malkin will take up more than a quarter of the Penguins' cap space, meaning it will be very difficult to re-sign Norris Trophy finalist Kris Letang to a new deal. Like Letang, Chris Kunitz, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen are also up after next year. Suffice to say, the Pens are assuming the cap is going to go up quite a bit after its planned dip for the 2013-14 season.
And the Penguins are one of the most fascinating teams to watch in the coming weeks when you look at a list of unrestricted free agents that includes Matt Cooke, Pascual Dupuis, Brendan Morrow, Jarome Iginla and Douglas Murray.
It seems that goaltending coach Gilles Meloche was sacrificed, with the Penguins needing to find a way to get Fleury, the former No. 1 overall pick, back to the form he had in '09.
The play of Fleury might be a bigger reason for the Pens' struggles than the offensive meltdown against Boston. When you have no faith in your goaltending, be it Fleury or Tomas Vokoun, it's hard to press forward. With Fleury struggling, the Pens barely got by the New York Islanders in the first round. Another 1-8 upset would have almost certainly meant curtains for Bylsma.
He survived that round, and the second round against Ottawa. But the Pens didn't have what it took against Boston to still be on the ice in Chicago this week.
“Coming up short is no question disappointing,” Bylsma said. “No question you're going to look at this as a missed opportunity.”
See how Shero retools this offseason. The Penguins think they should be in the Cup hunt every year. The talent dictates that. It's up to Bylsma to bring it out.