Less than five months ago, when the Pittsburgh Penguins got unceremoniously bounced from the Eastern Conference finals, Penguins nation was incensed. “Fire Bylsma!” “Trade Fleury!” were the cries, impassioned with a laundry list of evidence why the Pens needed to move in several different directions in order to get a different result come playoff time, with most – if not all – of the blame falling on the head coach and supposed “franchise goalie”.
Ultimately, general manager Ray Shero chose neither of those drastic options. In fact, he took he opposite course when he gave Bylsma a contract extension early in the summer and tweaked the coaching staff to benefit both Bylsma and Fleury. Shero did this by adding veteran defensive mind Jacques Martin as an assistant and replacing the goalie coach. Throw in the re-acquisition of a goalie’s (and coach’s) best friend in steady defenseman Rob Scuderi and Shero decided to bunker in and support Fleury and Bylsma, rather than dumping either (or both) of them.
That plan, though early, has paid off. With the regular season about 20% complete, the Penguins sit in first place in the surprisingly weak Metropolitan Division. Their 11-4-0 record that’s still good enough to be the best record in the Eastern Conference, and they’re likely to coast into the playoffs. Pittsburgh’s 48 goals rank near the top of the conference despite some of their most skilled players (James Neal, Kris Letang, Beau Bennett) missing most or almost all of the season so far due to injuries. Also missing this year is Tomas Vokoun, the safety net of the 2013 season, whose scary blood clot condition left the team with no choice but to lean on Fleury.
And he’s more than propped the team up, so far. Fleury currently ranks first in the NHL in wins (10), fifth in goals against (1.83) and ninth in save percentage (.929%). He’s gone from being the butt of jokes, back to the guy who plays very strongly in the regular season and is a main reason the team is winning games.
However, we’ve seen this before – Bylsma and Fleury racking up regular season wins before looking shaky in a postseason series. Since winning the Cup in 2009, both men have looked almost helpless at times as seasons have skittered away, with the most recent two endings of Philadelphia debacle of 2012 and Boston sweep of ’13 still looming large. Fleury can win all the games in October or November that he wants, but if he gives up a goal or two in the first period of the first playoff game, all of that success and foundation is out the window. Similarly, Byslma’s decisions like playing tough-guy defenseman Deryk Engelland may shine early in the regular season when Engo snipes a beauty of a (game-winning) goal, but if he keeps him in the lineup and they give up a goal against in the spring, all of the good will is going to be quickly forgotten.
For a team that intends to compete for the Stanley Cup every year, as the Penguins have now for seven straight seasons – since Shero’s acquisition of Marian Hossa put them on the radar – only the end result matters. Win, and it’s a success. Fall short, no matter how short, and it’s a disappointment. The Pittsburgh Penguins may not be able to achieve true success in this early part of the season, but it sure is encouraging to watch the two with the biggest targets be able to perform their jobs so well. Consistency, focus and execution in the most important part of the year still matters more than anything, but early in 2013-14, Marc-Andre Fleury and Dan Bylsma have gone from the doghouse to the penthouse in terms of performance. Given the way the past few years have ended, that’s quite the unexpected turn.