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For Pens, goaltending, stars are key

PITTSBURGH -- All that hammering and sawing and drilling you heard emanating from the Pittsburgh locker room Tuesday morning was the sound of a hockey team frantic to plug the many holes in the Good Ship Penguin.

In the wake of a 6-1 home loss to the Boston Bruins in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference final -- a loss that dropped them into a 2-0 series deficit and a world of emotional hurt -- the Penguins have 32 hours to make their vessel seaworthy and get back in this series, or face an offseason of significant turmoil.

Now, anyone who watched the Penguins get manhandled by the Bruins in the first two games -- outscored 9-1, including allowing a four-goal first period in Game 2 -- might believe the die is already cast.

Smells like smoked Penguin, doesn't it?

"I don't think it's another day. I think we have to really take a good look at where we're at individually and as a group," head coach Dan Bylsma said Tuesday before his team boarded a charter flight to Boston, where Game 3 is set for Wednesday night.

"I think we did that," he said.

But a step back and a little perspective suggests that there is in fact time for the Penguins to chart a different course and inject some drama to the proceedings.

Don't believe us? Read on as we outline five ways in which the Penguins can get back in this thing.

1. Stability in the net: Let's start with Bylsma's biggest decision: which of his spotty goaltenders will he turn to in a must-win Game 3? Tomas Vokoun lasted just 16:31 in Game 2, allowing three goals on 12 shots before being yanked in favor of suddenly fragile Marc-Andre Fleury. Not that the goals were all Vokoun's fault, really, but at some point a Penguins goaltender is going to have to do better than rationalize the ones that get by him.

"Well, I'm a goalie, so you're there to make a difference. I wouldn't say they were bad goals, but I didn't make the stops and didn't make the difference," Vokoun said. "I don't think you can always say, 'well, they were good goals.'

"Just like the players, we have some guys who are here to finish and score goals, and if they don't, then even they get chances it's not good enough. So for me it wasn't a matter of letting three goals in but it was a matter of not letting the team capture momentum, make the big save at the start of the game when we needed it."

Most people believe it will be Fleury in Game 3. But even though he was given a chance to reclaim the starting job he lost, Fleury allowed a hard-but-long-range blast from Brad Marchand to elude him and restore a three-goal Bruins lead just 25 seconds after Brandon Sutter had given the Penguins life with a goal in the final minute of the first period.

Both goalies have the goods to go save-for-save with Boston's Tuukka Rask, who thus far allowed just one goal on 56 shots. Remember when Vokoun pitched a shutout when called on to steady the Penguins in Game 5 of the first round? Fleury, of course, is the goalie who collected 30 combined postseason wins in 2008 and 2009, including several with his team's backs against the wall. Can he summon that version of himself in Game 3, or is he locked into the jittery persona we've seen this spring, and also during last year's first-round loss to Philadelphia?

Bylsma wouldn't tip his hand, praising Vokoun's overall play and saying Fleury was going to be judged on his entire body of work, not just how he played in Game 2 or even earlier this spring. It's a tall order regardless of which way the coach goes. If it were up to us the nod would go to Vokoun, but one thing is for sure: Bylsma better get this decision right.

2. Tighten up on defense. It was strange to hear the Penguins talk about having to refocus and come up with a different defensive mindset after Game 2, but even after a 3-0 loss in Game 1, players and coaches were talking about Pittsburgh cheating while trying to score.

The Penguins looked dominant on both sides of the puck in a second-round win over Ottawa, outscoring the Senators 22-11, and the consistent message in that series was that offense comes from defense. By playing a tight game in their own zone, the Penguins are able to create chances going the other way. Sounds like a good theory, and yet the Pens appear to have completely abandoned that concept. The Bruins have all kinds of space and time in the Pittsburgh zone.

On the third goal of Game 2, David Krejci and his linemates completed a pretty three-way passing play in the Penguins' zone and weren't contested by the Penguins at all. Plays like that have been all too common in the first two games, and that falls not just on the defensemen but also on the forwards who have been slow to pick up coverage in the Penguins' zone.

"The focus hasn't been about scoring goals that will come naturally when we do all the other things. We have a lot of talent in here," said Jarome Iginla, who had just three points (one goal and two assists) in the Ottawa series and has struggled at both ends of the ice thus far in the conference final. "The focus is trying to do other things right and not think about the goals and we'll find them, and we have. We've been a very high-scoring team and we'll find a way to do that. But it's the things leading up to that we need to improve on."

3. More power-play success. The Penguins were given only two power-play opportunities in Game 2, but the first -- midway through the second period on a silly offensive-zone trip by Brad Marchand on Sidney Crosby -- could have opened the door for a Pittsburgh comeback.

The Pens' previously smoking-hot power play has been dry in the series, though, missing that crucial opportunity in Game 2 and going 0-for-6 overall. Credit, of course, goes to a Bruins penalty-killing unit that has allowed just two power play goals in their last 22 shorthanded situations.

But the Penguins have seemed impatient with the puck when they have had power-play chances. What made the unit so deadly in the previous two rounds was the diversity of the attack. Sometimes it was Kris Letang or Evgeni Malkin pounding pucks from the point; other times it was Crosby working the puck down low to big bodies like James Neal or Chris Kunitz in front. There's been none of that thus far against Boston, and little sustained pressure at all. That will have to change as the series shifts to Beantown for Games 3 and 4 on Wednesday and Friday.

4. Get some speed on the ice. We must admit we were a bit befuddled by Bylsma's decision to take Tyler Kennedy out of the Game 2 lineup and go with Joe Vitale, while adding the lumbering Deryk Engelland in place of Mark Eaton. We get the desire to match the Bruins' physicality, but isn't the best way to counteract that to put as speedy a lineup as possible on the ice and try to force the Bruins back into their heels?

Kennedy is a proven playoff performer who has worked well skating with Matt Cooke and Brandon Sutter. We love Vitale's energy, and with Jussi Jokinen a nonfactor while going 1-for-4 on faceoffs in Game 2, it might serve the Penguins well to have both Vitale and Kennedy in the lineup to try and keep pressure on the Bruins in their own zone. In a game where it's vital the Penguins score first and dictate pace of play, having as much speed and sand as possible in the lineup will be crucial.

Bylsma promised there would not only be lineup changes, but changes to his forward combination. Will that mean moving Iginla back to his natural spot on the right side, perhaps with Crosby? When Bylsma shook up his lineup in Game 5 of the first round against the Islanders he got instant results. Will the same hold true in Boston?

"We have to get back to playing good defensive hockey, we have to get back to playing get away from the puck, and that's got to happen throughout our lineup," Bylsma said. "I think you'll see some changes in our lines and a few guys being added to the lineup to do so."

5. The stars must shine. It goes without saying that the big boys have to come to play. Crosby would be the first to admit he has not been at his best over the first two games. His turnover during the first shift of Game 2 allowed a Marchand breakaway that gave the Bruins a 1-0 lead.

"You know what? It was just one of those nights. I didn't do anything, didn't change anything. I had the same mentality going in, and just felt like every time I got it the puck was bouncing or ended up giving it away," Crosby said Tuesday. "It's not a good feeling, but at the end of the day those things kind of happen in this game, and it's not always easy to explain, but you've got to make sure that you don't let it happen again."

Malkin has been the best of the top Penguins forwards, but that's a bar that's been set perilously low in the first two games. Letang has been all over the place, and his grisly defensive-zone turnover led directly to the Bruins' second goal. Neal has gone back to being a nonfactor after finishing the Ottawa series on fire, and Iginla acknowledged he's had a couple of lame outings in this series.

When the Penguins are rolling, they are a patient, opportunistic team that forces opponents into mistakes and then makes them pay for those mistakes. Too often in the first two games Pittsburgh appears so intent on scoring that it diverts from the game plan. The leaders need to rededicate themselves and trust that plan will work as it has in the past.

There is no reason a team this talented should look as bad as it did in Game 2, and there is no reason a team this experienced and talented cannot up the ante in what will be its most important game of the playoffs.