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Top Shelf: Pens' problems go beyond Fleury

<p>Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff struggles have left such an indelible mark on his career it's sometimes difficult to remember the guy actually anchored a Stanley Cup winner.</p>

Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Marc-Andre Fleury's recent playoff struggles have left such an indelible mark on his career it's sometimes difficult to remember the guy actually anchored a Stanley Cup winner.

The Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender added another chapter to his already well- documented postseason struggles Wednesday evening in Columbus, leaving us to once again ask the question: can Fleury bounce back?

However, the problematic reality for the Penguins is that even if Fleury does overcome another dreadful postseason performance, it may not be enough to get them to another Stanley Cup title, or even out of the first round of the playoffs.

Pittsburgh currently finds itself tied at 2-2 with the pesky Columbus Blue Jackets in the opening round, and the Metropolitan Division champions are struggling to find answers.

And Fleury isn't the only Penguin looking up at the sky for help. Superstar forwards Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin -- both without a goal four games into the series -- also need to shoulder some of the blame as does Pittsburgh head coach Dan Bylsma.

But on Wednesday night, Fleury was at the center of attention for all the wrong reasons. Even though he made 42 saves for Pittsburgh, it's hard not to blame the 29-year-old netminder for the 4-3 overtime loss in Game 4.

With less than 30 seconds left in regulation and Pittsburgh holding a 3-2 edge, Fleury made a costly stickhandling error that led to a tying goal. Mere moments away from his team taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series, the goaltender went behind his net to stop a rolling puck for his defensemen when the disc hopped over his stick.

Ryan Johansen collected the loose puck for Columbus and fed a pass into the slot for Brandon Dubinsky, who flipped a wrister into the open cage while Fleury tried unsuccessfully to make a last-ditch dive to stop it.

That was bad enough, but what followed in OT was even worse. Nick Foligno carried the puck up the left wing through the neutral zone in a 1-on-1 with Pens defenseman Matt Niskanen, then released a long-distance shot from above the left circle. The puck fluttered toward Fleury and dipped below his glove hand before hitting the net and ending the game.

There is no doubt Fleury cost his team Wednesday's game, but unlike last season when Bylsma benched the goaltender in the first round against the New York Islanders, Pittsburgh appears to be stuck with Fleury in 2014. Veteran backstop Tomas Vokoun stepped in to start Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2 and not only did he help get the Pens past the Isles, he also led Pittsburgh to the Eastern Conference finals, where the club was embarrassed in a four-game sweep by Boston.

Vokoun is still with the Pittsburgh organization, but hasn't played an NHL game since last spring due to ongoing issues with a blood clot. Fleury's current backup Jeff Zatkoff has never played in the postseason and doesn't seem to be an option for Bylsma.

When asked if he believed Fleury would bounce back in Saturday's home Game 5, Pittsburgh's coach responded by saying, "I do."

Bylsma, who also was the head coach for Team USA at the Sochi Olympics, steered Pittsburgh through a rash of injuries en route to a division title in 2013-14. However, it's getting the most of his troops in the playoffs in recent years that has been the real concern for Bylsma.

Like Fleury, Pittsburgh's head coach is in some ways a victim of his own early success with the Pens. Bylsma replaced Michel Therrien as head coach in February of 2009, and a few months later he and Fleury helped lead the Pens to their first Stanley Cup title since 1992.

However, in four postseasons since that championship, the Penguins have lost in the opening round twice and only managed to make it past the second round last spring. That is monumentally disappointing for a franchise which enters every season with aspirations of winning it all. If a first-round exit in 2014 gets added on top of the pile, it could be time to think about making big changes to the makeup of this team.

The lofty expectations are largely a result of Crosby and Malkin's presence on the same team, as the duo give the club one of, if not the best, 1-2 centermen combinations in the league. Although each player has registered four assists in this postseason, Crosby and Malkin are clearly not playing at the top of their games against Columbus.

The NHL's leading scorer in 2013-14, Crosby is the prohibitive favorite to win the Hart Trophy as league MVP. Malkin battled injuries this season but still managed to record 23 goals and 72 points over 60 games.

The Pens have other talented skaters up front and on defense, but James Neal, Chris Kunitz and Kris Letang aren't going to shoulder the blame so long as all-world players like Crosby and Malkin are not pulling their weight.

So, is Bylsma being let down by his players or is it the other way around? If general manager Ray Shero believes the latter argument is the truth, Bylsma could be coaching for his job in this series. If the GM thinks the former theory is correct and Pittsburgh suffers another early playoff exit in 2014, we could see a big roster turnover in the Steel City this summer.

Pittsburgh, of course, could change the conversation with a strong showing in Game 5. Bylsma is confident that can happen, but only if everybody elevates their play.

"We have to respond, from Sidney Crosby right down through our lineup. We have to respond as a team, Marc-Andre Fleury and the whole group," Bylsma said after the Game 4 meltdown.

The Pens, obviously, stand an excellent chance at righting themselves and winning this series, but getting past the Blue Jackets, who had never won a playoff game before this spring, is not something for Pittsburgh to rejoice about.

Anything less than a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals will just be lumped in with every other disappointing postseason the Pens have suffered through since the 2009 title. The only difference is another early exit in 2014 will make it nearly impossible for Shero and the Pittsburgh brass to act like everything is fine.

Whether it be due to Fleury's struggles, Bylsma's inadequacies behind the bench or a lack of production from Crosby and Malkin, if the Pens go down in flames this spring, then something has to change.

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