PITTSBURGH -- This series between Columbus and Pittsburgh might have been considered among the least compelling of the eight first-round matchups when the playoffs began almost two weeks ago, but it is now gaining widespread attention in part because of the joyful abandon with which the Blue Jackets have tackled just their second postseason appearance but in larger part because of the teetering Penguins.
"We're in a series," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "You look around the league, there's a lot of 2-2 series. I don't think it's anything we haven't seen before. It's a tough series. Maybe the expectation was different from the outside, but I think you go into a playoff series expecting a long, tough one."
All four games have ended 4-3 and, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, for the first time in playoff history the winning team has erased a two-goal deficit four times in one series. Of course, that has happened in each game of this series, adding to the wacky factor.
The Blue Jackets are full measure for having reduced this series to a best-of-three. But the talent-laden Penguins are the authors of their own misfortunes and those misfortunes extend well beyond the goal crease.
The team has played inspired hockey only sporadically. The Penguins scored three goals on three consecutive shots in the third period in Game 3 to earn the victory after falling behind 2-0 and 3-1. But Fleury, after a slow start to that game, had to be strong while waiting for his team to flex its considerable offensive muscles.
The Pens scored a pair of power-play goals 45 seconds apart in Game 1 to erase a two-goal deficit en route to a victory, but were hardly the dominant team. They got into penalty trouble in Games 2 and 4 that allowed the Blue Jackets to mount comeback wins in both cases.
James Neal and Chris Kunitz scored their first goals of the postseason in Game 4 but, all told, Kunitz, Neal, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the beleaguered Kris Letang have managed just those two goals this series and two goals dating back to the four-game sweep against Boston last spring in the Eastern Conference finals.
Bylsma has been unusually sharp in his assessment of his team's play and where the team is right now.
"We've talked about this question with Evgeni and Sidney scoring goals: Do they need to score goals, do we need more?" Bylsma said. "They're our best players. We need more from our whole team. And we need more from them. That is, again, in the areas we've talked about; it's our compete level, it's our puck battles, it's our willingness to play in those areas and come underneath and support to make it a tough game. Our whole team needs to be better in that regard."
That a coach of such a talented team is talking about effort or lack thereof at such a critical juncture of the season seems indefensible, but the reality is that whether through fear of not meeting expectations or conceit that their considerable talent will at some point simply carry the day, this is a Pens team that faces a defining moment early in this playoff year.
Crosby admitted that it isn't the line of questioning one expects or wants at this time of year.
"It's not one you typically want to be having to answer but I think every playoffs has kind of different things that you go through, different challenges," Crosby said. "And I think for whatever reason we haven't been hungry enough, whether that's because of other things I'm not sure, but I think that's something we have to be sure to correct here in Game 5."
Even the rarely visible media-wise Malkin made himself available Friday to agree with the need for the team to find some more urgency in their game, saying "we just play 20 minutes, first 20 minutes and after we don't play. I don't know why. We think maybe it's [an] easy game, 3-0, and we just win this game. But it's playoffs, we need to still play 60 minutes and every battle to win and focus every shift."
Perspective is something that's hard to come by in a playoff series and it is especially true when good teams falter. But it's also important to note the series is tied 2-2, even if it feels to Pittsburgh fans like it's 155-1.
As Bylsma pointed out, even if the Pens had won Game 4, it wouldn't have covered up the issues that were apparent in the game.
"You certainly would like to be up 3-1 and feel a little bit better about that today, but I'm not sure that would have shown us the level we're not at," he said. "There's a price to be paid and it's a hardness to your game that we have to get to."
Can they get there? That question and many others will be answered at least in part on Saturday night, as the next act of this strangely compelling series unfolds.