PITTSBURGH — A year ago, after the Philadelphia Flyers embarrassed the heavily favored Penguins in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, Flyers coach Peter Laviolette rubbed the Penguins' noses in it by calling his team's Claude Giroux the best player in the world. Take that Sidney Crosby. Take that Evgeni Malkin.
The way things are going this spring for the obscenely talented but underachieving Penguins in the Eastern Conference final series, Boston Bruins coach Claude Julien soon will be able to say the same thing about his star, David Krejci. Who could argue with him after watching the first two games, including the Bruins' 6-1 win Monday night in Game 2, a win that was as convincing as it was stunning to the big Consol Energy Center crowd, which let the home team have it with boos?
Krejci was great again, scoring another goal after getting two in Boston's 3-0 win Saturday night in Game 1. Crosby and Malkin not only did nothing to help the Penguins, they hurt the team badly. So did star defenseman Kris Letang. Crosby looked nothing like the best player in the world. Malkin didn't look like a former league MVP. Letang didn't even resemble a Norris Trophy finalist.
"Tonight was terrible. There's no other way to describe it," Crosby said. "We made it way too easy on them."
Two wins, of course, do not advance any team to the Cup final. With Game 3 set for tonight at 8 in Boston, the Penguins still have time to make it a series, still are skilled enough to win four of the next five games even if three will be in Boston, if necessary.
But that doesn't change the harsh truth: Crosby, Malkin and Letang have been thoroughly outplayed by the Bruins stars.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma didn't want to go there.
"I'm not going to look at just three players. As a group, we need to be a lot better."
But Crosby did.
"We don't sit here and accept it. We know we're looked upon to score and produce. We're not going to sit here and make excuses. I'm not going to sit here and say it's (Boston goaltender Tuukka) Rask. We have to be better."
Crosby has been lousy. It's hard to say he ever has played this poorly in consecutive games. It's not just that he failed to get a point in either game. He lost his cool at the end of the second period in Game 1, going out of his way to harass Rask and then comically jawing with Boston giant Zdeno Chara, who could have squeezed his head off if he had so desired. If Crosby's plan was to inspire his teammates, who trailed, 1-0, at the time, he failed miserably. The Bruins dominated the third period.
Crosby sabotaged the Penguins much earlier in Game 2 with the first of his four giveaways. He didn't handle a bouncing puck at the Boston blue line, turning it over to Bruins winger Brad Marchand, who soared the other way on a breakaway, easily beating Penguins goalie Tomas Vokoun with a wrist shot just 28 seconds into the game. Crosby's blunder brought back nightmares of the boarding penalty he took just 10 seconds into Game 7 of the Penguins' 2010 playoff series with Montreal. The Canadiens' Brian Gionta turned it into a power-play goal 22 seconds later, and the Penguins never recovered, losing, 5-2, in their final game at Mellon Arena.
The Penguins didn't recover Monday night, either.
Letang did his part to make sure of that. He is incredibly good most of the time, but he has moments that are wickedly bad. One led to Boston's second goal when he tried to clear the puck from behind his net up the center of the ice. Bruins defender Torey Krug intercepted his pass and teammate Nathan Horton turned it into a rebound goal and a 2-0 lead, which quickly became 3-0 when Krejci was left alone for an easy tap-in goal that sent Vokoun to the bench for Marc-Andre Fleury. Letang was on the ice, doing nothing in particular, for that goal as well. He finished a minus-3.
Malkin didn't have any such egregious mistakes, unlike in Game 1 when he foolishly, thoughtlessly and selfishly got into a fight with the Bruins' Patrice Bergeron at the end of the second period when the Penguins were on the power play. But he failed to get a point for the second consecutive game and for the fourth time in the past five playoff games. He had a nice scoring chance when the game was 1-0 but shot the puck right into Rask after cruising down the high slot.
The lame performance of the Penguins stars in the first two games must have made Jarome Iginla think to himself, "Damn, I should have gone with the Bruins at the trade deadline!" Then again, he didn't do anything to help in the first two games, either.
Krejci has been wonderful. He came into Game 2 as the NHL's leading playoff scorer, with 19 points before getting his eighth goal. Horton also has been very good against the Penguins, with two goals and three assists in the two games.
Then, there's Rask. He has been far better than Vokoun and Fleury, stopping 55 of 56 shots in the two wins.
Vokoun gave up the three goals Monday night on 12 shots. Fleury, playing for the first time since Game 4 of the first-round series against the New York Islanders, was beaten by Marchand on the first shot he saw, just 25 seconds after the Penguins' Brandon Sutter had scored to cut the Boston lead to 3-1.
Fleury gave up two more goals in the third period, including a weak final goal to Bruins defenseman Johnny Boychuk on a long slap shot.
So who starts in goal for the Penguins in Game 3? Eric Hartzell?
Seriously, it won't matter if Crosby, Malkin and Letang don't show up.