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On Hockey

How have the Penguins lost their way?

Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins have put but one puck past Tuukka Rask.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins have put but one puck past Tuukka Rask.

PITTSBURGH — They can’t be this bad. Can they?

Soft in goal, porous and disoriented on defense, and with forwards working under the misguided belief that the game is intended to be played in only one (read: offensive) end, the Penguins Monday night officially surrendered their free pass and executive limo ride to the Stanley Cup Final.

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Look, there is no disputing Pittsburgh’s offensive talent. Anyone would envy their collection of skilled forwards. Take Jarome Iginla, for example. He was so envious, so enthralled by what he watched from afar in Calgary, he ultimately told Jay Feaster to stick that trade the Flames general manager made with the Bruins and that he only would go to Pittsburgh, Steel City, where the goals pile high . . . and the goals against even higher.

Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins have put but one puck past Tuukka Rask (we remind you again, he was not a Vezina finalist). The league’s other Black and Gold team can’t buy a goal. More troubling, they can’t find a foothold in the series, in large part because they have been shapeless on defense and careless in their handling and management of the puck. While the Bruins have put on a clinic, the Penguins have all but put brown bags over their heads.

Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

Two games into the Eastern Conference finals, the Penguins have put but one puck past Tuukka Rask.

“We were happy with our first 40 minutes in Game 1,’’ said Pittsburgh backliner Brooks Orpik, who posted a minus-2 in Monday night’s 6-1 thrashing by the Bruins. “But there was nothing to be happy about tonight.’’

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Pittsburgh’s star center, Sidney Crosby, spent much of Game 2 as Boston’s primary playmaker, either turning pucks over with hurried, clueless plays, or dishing tape-to-tape passes directly to Boston sticks. With nine minutes gone in the second, he pulled up in the offensive zone and zipped a beauty to Chris Kelly. That ranked only second to his handing over the puck to Brad Marchand, leading to Marchand’s unassisted strike for the 1-0 lead with only 28 seconds gone.

It was mesmerizing. The more the Penguins played, the worse they played. They lacked execution. They lacked fight. They lacked the want of a champion. When it was over, team legend/owner Mario Lemieux stood for a brief moment in the corner of the dressing room and stared. His juggernaut was in knots, his playoff season in shambles.

“They capitalized on our every mistake,’’ said defenseman Kris Letang, who equaled forward James Neal for a game-worst minus-3. “We scored against Ottawa [in Round 2] because we put pucks in deep and forechecked hard. But now we’re not getting pucks through the neutral zone and we are getting frustrated.’’

For the second straight game, the Penguins failed to put up 30 shots on Rask. Of the 27 shots he faced, Cool Hand Tuke allowed in only Brandon Sutter’s shot off the rush with 34 seconds left in the first period, trimming the Boston lead to 3-1. But only 25 seconds later, with but nine seconds to go before the break, Marchand scored for a second time and the game was essentially over. Had the Penguins held, they would have been able to spend the intermission talking of momentum and the hope of chipping back to a tie, perhaps eeking out a 4-3 win. Instead, the ’Lil Ball o’ Hate had his second of the night.

“It gave ’em some life,’’ said Rask, now with GAA of 0.50 in this series, and a league-high 10 wins in the postseason. “But [Marchand’s goal] took it back right away.’’

Great offensive teams in recent decades have had a way of buttoning things up on the back end come playoff time. The Habs of the late ’70s. The Islanders of the early ’80s. The Oilers of the ’80s, for all their flash with Wayne Gretzky as the greatest offensive performer in league history, closed down the shop when it came time to win 16 more games each April and May.

The Penguins are reminiscent of those clubs in terms of scoring ability. But they are lacking on the backline and in their forwards’ willingness to lend support in the entire back half of the ice. For most of the first 120 minutes of the series, the likes of Iginla, Evgeni Malkin, Crosby, Neal, Chris Kunitz et al have taken a half-hearted, beer-league-like approach to puck support. They have been outworked, outmuscled, outplayed.

“Against a team like this,’’ said Orpik, “if you aren’t defensively responsible, they’ll make you pay for it.’’

Clearly frustrated by Rask at one end, they’ve been equally stymied by play in their own end. Some of that falls to Tomas Vokoun, their starting goalie for Games 1 and 2. He let in three Saturday night, then followed that by giving up a goal on the first shot (Marchand) in Game 2.

Vokoun again was not confident. He was not good. When David Krejci popped in the 3-0 lead with 3:29 left in the second period, coach Dan Bylsma finally called it a day and sent Marc-Andre Fleury in for Vokoun. Fleury allowed the next three, and now Bylsma must decide which of those two to play in Game 3.

Truth is, if he gets the same half-hearted defensive effort from his 18 skaters, he might as well play Jeff Zatkoff, the 25-year-old just promoted from the American Hockey League. It’s not so much about a leaky goal as it is an overall meager effort.

“I think the biggest thing is our attitude,’’ offered Bylsma. “That was a big adjustment for our team earlier in the season, and that’s what it’s going to have to be — how we reset, how we get refocused and how we go into Boston.’’

To survive, the Penguins need to win four of five. They first need to find a defensive game plan and the willingness to execute it. At this time of the year, it will be even harder to do that than to score goals.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at Dupont@globe.com.
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