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Kovacevic: It's Bylsma's move now

| Monday, April 2, 2012

Forget the Penguins' total flat-liner of a 6-4 loss to Philadelphia, if you hadn't already by sundown Sunday. The outcome meant little, and the sideshow that followed meant less.

There's no point fretting over blowing home ice for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not with the Flyers still undefeated at Consol Energy Center. You'd rather see Games 1 and 2 in the Civic Arena rubble than on this side of Centre Avenue.

No point fussing over Peter Laviolette's freak-out, either.

In a final-minute show of what might well have been manufactured rage, Philadelphia's coach reacted to Joe Vitale's textbook hipcheck on Daniel Briere and an ensuing center-ice brawl like a petulant 7-year-old: He smashed a stick, finger-pointed the Penguins' bench and — in a classic case of the pot calling the kettle orange and black — twice described the Penguins' staff as "gutless" for deploying the fourth line late in a lopsided game.

OK, and?

The Flyers behaving boorishly is about as newsworthy as Cup-free summers on the other end of the commonwealth.

No, the most important takeaway here for the home side should have been this hard realization: These fast, furious and more-skilled-than-most-think Flyers are very much a threat to outskate, outsmart and ultimately outlast the Penguins in the first round if Dan Bylsma and his staff don't make major — and yes, gutsy — adjustments.

Here are five:

1. Leave the lines alone

The only line Bylsma left unchanged through this game - and in recent weeks — was Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Chris Kunitz. There's no reason that shouldn't also be true for Sidney Crosby, who had four wingers in addition to semi-regular linemates Steve Sullivan and Pascal Dupuis in the first period alone.

I raised the issue with Bylsma, and he replied that "there's probably a little bit of a misconception that I mix and match," adding that special teams can force his hand. But he used 13 combinations in the Penguins' previous meeting with the Flyers and 11 in this one.

If Bylsma is going to ream out his players for a lack of cohesiveness, as he did last week at practice, he needs to do his part.

2. Um, Letang on point?

Kris Letang returned from missing three games to injury, but he remained conspicuously missing from the power play, as Bylsma stuck with his talented by terribly non-functional five-forward formation.

If that seems nuts, consider that Bylsma afterward vowed to continue the five-forward plan "into the playoffs," while getting "Kris into the mix."

If that's not a bluff, it borders on madness.

3. Malkin up front

On one power play Sunday, the NHL's leading scorer touched the puck exactly twice. Both times, he was 100-plus feet from the net, lugging the puck to the red line to let others do the offensive work.

To whom should Laviolette send the thank-you card if this persists into playoffs?

Malkin on the half-wall brought a 26 percent success rate. This isn't complex.

4. Stop the stretch

The Flyers, like most opponents during this 2-4 funk, stretched out the Penguins in the neutral zone by sending a forward behind the defense. That forced one defenseman to backpedal early — looked like Zbynek Michalek got started an hour before faceoff — leaving the middle of the ice open for an easy breakout and, all too often, an odd-man break.

Max Talbot, formerly of the Penguins, acknowledged the Flyers picked up the flaw in video study: "You look at things."

There isn't an easy answer. If Bylsma brings a forward back into the neutral zone, that takes away the Penguins' natural aggressiveness.

The best remedy is the one Bylsma has been advocating: Stop recklessly forfeiting possession when deep in the attacking zone.

That was Michalek's response, too: "We all just need to manage the puck better."

5. Adjust, adjust, adjust

Bylsma and his staff deserve all the praise sent their way over the years, but no one can charge them with being adept at changing on the fly. That's been obvious in failures to adjust to disciplined opponents such as the New Jersey Devils, and it was most glaring in the first-round loss last season to the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Anyone remember the Statue of Liberty power play?

That's the one where the participants barely budged from their perimeter positions, the Lightning stood in the box and wiggled their sticks and, before long, the Penguins were hitting the links.

Time to get moving.

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