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Starkey: Pens not in critical condition — yet

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'American Coyotes' Series

Traveling by Jeep, boat and foot, Tribune-Review investigative reporter Carl Prine and photojournalist Justin Merriman covered nearly 2,000 miles over two months along the border with Mexico to report on coyotes — the human traffickers who bring illegal immigrants into the United States. Most are Americans working for money and/or drugs. This series reports how their operations have a major impact on life for residents and the environment along the border — and beyond.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013, 10:21 p.m.

Something struck me about the way Jarome Iginla carried himself in a television interview after the Penguins' Game 4 loss (otherwise known as “Fleury's Last Stand”).

Back in Pittsburgh, people had practically taken to the streets with pitchforks. They probably were shredding No. 29 jerseys and burning sock monkeys, too. The Twitter-sphere was on red alert.

Inside the crumbling walls of Nassau Mausoleum, however, Iginla was smiling.

“This is fun,” he said. “It's intense.”

On Wednesday afternoon, Iginla again injected some perspective — some sanity — into a series that stands not at 3-0 Islanders but at two games apiece (I just double-checked, and it really is 2-2).

“Give them some credit,” he said. “It's hard. It's a battle, and the Islanders are playing great. … We expected it to be tough.”

Then came the money line, which Iginla said twice: “This could be great for us.”

The way fans and some people in the Penguins organization throw around the word “Cup,” you'd think winning it was easier than sucking Evgeni Malkin into a retaliatory penalty.

Everybody should know better.

Look at this franchise's history. In each of its three Stanley Cup runs, it faced circumstances far more dire than 2-2:

• In 1991, the Penguins were down, 3-2, to the New Jersey Devils in the first round, staring at Game 6 without their best defenseman (Paul Coffey) and their starting goaltender (Tom Barrasso). That's dire. But it turned into the Frank Pietrangelo “save” game. And that turned into Cup No. 1.

• In 1992 , the Penguins fell behind the Washington Capitals, 3-1 — giving up 20 goals in four games — before radically altering their approach (they went to a 1-4 trap) and winning three in a row.

• In 2009, the Penguins fell behind the Capitals, 2-0, in the second round and went to overtime in Game 3. That's dire. They also trailed the mighty Detroit Red Wings, 2-0 and 3-2, in the Stanley Cup final.

Until a team sees the whites of elimination's eyes, a situation is far from desperate. Far from dire. Yes, I picked the Penguins in five games. But I can't be surprised that it's been much tougher than expected.

As coach Dan Bylsma put it, “Every playoff success has a story, and it's never an easy one.”

In truth, this might be just the right amount of adversity. It's not the verge-of-elimination kind, but it ought to be enough to allow Bylsma to make necessary hard decisions without ruffling any feathers.

So Fleury is out. That can't be a surprise. Nobody in this organization was going to sit around while Fleury faltered for a fourth consecutive spring.

Next, Bylsma must alter his lines. Sidney Crosby may love playing next to Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, but guess what? Malkin needs Kunitz more than Sid does.

What's more, even though Iginla says he has grown comfortable on the left side, it doesn't look that way. It's time to put him back on the right side, with Crosby and Dupuis, and reunite last season's high-powered line of Kunitz, Malkin and James Neal.

Meanwhile, Brenden Morrow has played himself into a demotion to the fourth line, just as Brandon Sutter did earlier in the series. Morrow has been too quick to attempt big hits and too slow to retrieve pucks. He has contributed nothing offensively and is tied for a team-worst minus-3 rating.

Tyler Kennedy, with his straight-line speed, deserves a chance on the third line alongside Sutter and Matt Cooke.

After that, it's up to Bylsma to make the mandated strategic adjustments, such as a finding new ways to break out of the defensive zone. The Islanders clearly have taken away the walls and the Penguins' precious long-passing game.

Kunitz spoke of the Islanders forcing the Penguins into “panic” mode at times with their quick, aggressive forecheck. If the Penguins lose Game 5, panic won't begin to describe this city's reaction.

But that hasn't happened yet. The Penguins aren't facing elimination.

This could actually be great for them.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at

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