- Scott Burnside, NHL
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Pittsburgh Penguins coach Dan Bylsma sounded pretty darned upbeat.
In fact, he sounded positively cheery as he discussed a team that has a No. 1 goalie in a funk, a top center on the shelf and a former scoring champ who won't shoot the puck.
But that has always been one of Bylsma's most endearing qualities since he arrived out of nowhere (actually, Wilkes-Barre/Scranton, Pa.) in February 2009 to lead the Penguins to a Stanley Cup championship.
No obstacle is too daunting, no adversity too imposing not to be met with a smile and a healthy dose of optimism.
So with the Boston Bruins and their impeccable defense and top-notch goaltending headed to Pittsburgh on Wednesday night and the high-powered Tampa Bay Lightning next on Friday, Bylsma is looking forward to seeing how his squad measures up.
His logic: This is the perfect time for a team looking to get back into championship sync to figure out how to win when things look bleak.
"I'm eager for these games," Bylsma told ESPN.com on Tuesday. "We need to start building the identity of how we're going to play."
The Penguins got off to a roaring start last season, unusual for a team that was coming off a draining championship run. But as the season went on, the team's ability to close out opponents and find that killer instinct and extra gear seemed to evaporate. The Penguins never found that quality and were bounced in the second round of the playoffs after blowing a 3-2 series lead against eighth-seeded Montreal.
So far this season, the Penguins have done some good things. They have incorporated Zbynek Michalek and Paul Martin, key pieces to their blue line. The Pens give up very little, allowing the second-fewest shots per game (26.6) in the league. Kris Letang is putting up terrific numbers from the back end, ably filling the void created by the departure of Sergei Gonchar. Captain Sidney Crosby's 19 points were good enough for third in the NHL scoring race as of Wednesday morning.
But things aren't all roses and chilled champagne in the Steel City. The Penguins are a middle-of-the-pack 7-7-1. Their power play is shuffling along at a 13.3 percent efficiency (ranking 21st in the league). Frank J. Selke Trophy nominee Jordan Staal was ready to come back from a foot injury that had kept him out of action all season but then broke his hand, and he is out for another month or so. Evgeni Malkin, former scoring champ and playoff MVP, has managed just four goals in 14 games and is minus-5.
Malkin's play follows a curiously unproductive end to his playoff season in May, and that followed his curiously unproductive 2009-10 regular season, when he finished with 77 points, 36 fewer than the previous campaign.
But Bylsma has seen signs that Malkin can return to form. The big center scored in the Pens' come-from-behind win over Phoenix in the team's last outing, Malkin's first goal in six games. More important from Bylsma's perspective is that Malkin shot the puck.
In the game before, against Anaheim, Malkin passed up at least five good shooting chances, Bylsma said. In Phoenix, he took four shots on one power play.
"That's what he needs to be, a little bit more in his game," Bylsma said. "He needs to have more of a shooter's mentality."
It stands to reason that the Penguins' power play also will improve if Malkin can find a way to produce more offensively, taking the burden off Crosby.
But perhaps the Penguins' greatest challenge, and by extension the biggest challenge facing Bylsma, is what to do about the team's goaltending. Marc-Andre Fleury, often a lightning rod for discontent among Penguins fans, has proved he possesses a healthy dose of mental toughness with his play in the playoffs in 2008 and 2009. You don't win 30 postseason games over two seasons without having jam. You don't win two Game 7s on the road, as the Pens did en route to the Cup in 2009, without being made of stern stuff.
Unfortunately for Fleury and the Penguins, all that stuff seems to have been packed away in a trunk, and he is unable to find the key.
To be frank, Fleury has been brutal. The 26-year-old is 1-6-0 and boasts a bloated goals-against average (3.55) and an ugly save percentage (.853). He has told reporters in Pittsburgh that his confidence has taken a hit. If it weren't for the otherworldly performance of veteran backup Brent Johnson (6-1-1 with a 1.63 GAA and .943 save percentage), the Penguins might have found themselves in the dire straits of other past playoff teams like Buffalo and New Jersey, wondering whether they can salvage their season.
"Brent Johnson has put extremely good numbers up there," Bylsma said. "They're outrageous numbers."
And so the tough decision remains. The Penguins need to win hockey games, and right now, the 33-year-old Johnson is giving them the best chance to do so. The Penguins also need Fleury to return to form because he ultimately gives the Pens their best chance at returning to Cup-contender status. He needs to play and get some wins under his belt so he can locate the misplaced key to that trunk of good thoughts.
How to achieve those apparently divergent goals is a topic of considerable debate within and beyond the Penguins' locker room. "It's a balancing act," Bylsma said.
At the GMs meeting in Toronto on Tuesday, Pittsburgh GM Ray Shero told ESPN.com's Pierre LeBrun that there is plenty of time to get this right.
"He's going through a tough time. Maybe it's confidence," Shero said of Fleury. "With Marc, I reflect back, and I do believe he's mentally tough and that's why he'll bounce back from this. ... He came back [from bad losses in the playoffs], and that takes mental toughness to do that, and that's what he has. But he's going to have to battle through it.
"We're doing everything we can to help him like any other player that's going through a tough time. We're behind him 100 percent. You don't win a Cup without him. He's a young kid. It's early in the year. He's just got to work through it and we have to work with him and get him through this."
There was a bit of a kerfuffle the other day when it appeared Crosby had a different view than Bylsma on how to proceed. The coach said that he and Crosby met and that there is no disagreement about what to do with the team's goaltending issue.
"We've seen Marc be an outstanding goaltender," Bylsma said. "Right now, he hasn't done that. Fortunately, Brent Johnson has."
That said, the coach insisted he believes that Fleury will return to form.
Bylsma said Fleury has had his ups and downs and has been criticized in the past, but "Marc has always come back."
"It's going to work itself out. It's a challenge for Marc-Andre, and it's a challenge for our team," Bylsma said.
Somehow, we get the feeling the coach wouldn't have it any other way. At least right now.