Until the puck is dropped on Wednesday evening to start Game Four of the Flyers-Penguins quarterfinal series, the Flyers will continue to say all the right things about not taking the outcome for granted, working hard for 60 minutes, and respecting Pittsburgh’s offensive ability. But let’s be real. We all know the outcome of this series was determined at about 4:15 of the first period of Game Three. That’s when Aaron Asham and Dan Bylsma decided that rather than find a way to fight back into the series, it was better to adopt a scorched earth policy where the goal isn’t so much to battle back into contention as much as it to intimidate and injure as many Flyers as possible before they advance to the second round. Hence the crosscheck to Brayden Schenn’s throat and the two sucker punches from Asham as he lay on the ice.
Problem is, except for defenseman Derek Engelland, the Penguins are not a tough team. They are dirty, but they are not tough, and accordingly, no Flyer was hurt or scared by the the Penguins on Sunday afternoon. Add intimidation to the long list of things Bylsma and the Pens can’t do right in the postseason.
Speaking of Bylsma, who has the Penguins looking more like Keystone Cops than the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup, it takes some doing to render such a talented group of players so ineffective. Apparently, he hasn’t told starting goalie Marc-Andre Fluery that the playoffs have started or his defensemen that hockey is played on ice because players are meant to skate . And instead of trying to spring him for a third goal that might have kept Pittsburgh in the game on Sunday, Bylsma had celebrated enforcer (?) James Neal headhunting vulnerable Flyer forwards. Hmmm, all the earmarks of a team that has packed it in. The Penguins fans deserve better. The performance he and his team put on in Game Three was an embarrassment to the franchise and to the league.
The Penguins’ shortcomings at this point are all to obvious. What really interests me is how NHL Commission Gary Bettman will react to the performance of Sidney Crosby on Sunday. Let’s face it, Bettman feels he has to sell the game to non-traditional U.S. hockey markets and he intends to do it by promoting offensive stars like Crosby, Neal, and Evgeni Malkin. In theory that’s all well and good, except that on Sunday, they were clearly much more interested in taking cheap shots like the one Crosby (and Greg Adams) took on Scott Hartnell or the elbow Malkin stuck in Maxime Talbot’s back before skating away during a third period scrum, or the aforementioned garbage from Neal, rather than trying to win.
When Bettman’s ambassadors start acting like punks, it’s time for the commissioner to end the double-standard. Double-standard, you say? Well, when Neal tries to decapitate two players and serves not one second of penalty time while Zac Renaldo ends up with 17 minutes in penalties for giving Tyler Kennedy a dirty look, that is a double standard. It is also the NHL’s brand of judicial activism, designed to get aggressive players off the ice so that skilled players can stay on it. But judicial activism usually fails in the courts, and it fails in the NHL as well. NBC announcer Mike Milbury, Flyers assistant coach Craig Berube, and Rangers coach John Tortorella have all given voice recently to what fans outside of the greater Pittsburgh area have been saying for years: As offensively skilled at they are, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a filthy team. On Sunday, Crosby and company demonstrated exactly why their critics say it.
Perhaps the only redeeming quality of Game Three on Sunday was the fact that it was nationally broadcast on NBC, so the whole country saw the hypocrisy first-hand. Good luck selling the game with Crosby and Malkin as its ambassadors, Gary… these Penguins may be long on talent, but they’re short on good sportsmanship.