Through a significant portion of their Tuesday practice, the Penguins labored deep in the offensive zone, well below the hash marks, mucking in the corners, struggling around the net, trying to make strategical sense, perhaps, of that area of the ice they now recognize as the Devils workshop.
For this is where a weekend was lost, a weekend when New Jersey directed Dan Bylsma's team into a rather jarring U-turn, and thus an early Penguins season that has been all over the map continues to be, well, all over the map.
Just when you persuade yourself you know what to make of it, another inexplicable wrinkle forms and any hope for a level or even linear narrative evaporates.
The Penguins are 2-3 at home, 6-2 on the road.
The Penguins fired 30 or more shots in five of their first six games, and now 29 or fewer in six of their past seven.
The Penguins scored five times in one period one night last week, only twice in seven periods since.
That kind of general dichotomy in their performance -- inconsistency being the more common term -- isn't from some unrelated multiplicity of causes, but rather from one cause, the one nearly everyone stopped talking about when play began Jan. 19, namely the lockout.
There is simply too much precision affixed to what hockey players do, particularly with the puck on their sticks, for anyone to expect a beautifully choreographed hockey season to spring onstage from a standing start.
"Maybe earlier, with the execution on passes," Sidney Crosby said when I asked if he had noticed elements of ragged play that could be attributed to the lockout. "It took a little while for the skill level to come back up, but I think now it's pretty good hockey. Seems like every night you're playing a desperate team, because every game is important."
The regularly scheduled desperate entity tonight will be the Jason Spezza-less Ottawa Senators, only two points behind the Penguins in the Eastern Conference and still hoping they might extend this shortened season into a playoff appointment that Spezza can make after having back surgery last week. Since Spezza left a game Jan. 27 against the Penguins, the Senators' scoring has fallen by more than one goal per game.
But the Senators at least know what ails them while the Penguins keep staring at the fun house mirror that is their on-ice profile. Even the mirror has goofy dimensions. By Sunday afternoon in Buffalo, N.Y., the regular season will be one-third finished, and yet two months from today, the playoffs will be nearly three weeks off.
If we're looking at a season that is manic at its outset and accelerated throughout, will we inevitably get a final few weeks where players are completely gassed, where teams will collapse into playoffs slots rather than rise to meet them?
Crosby doesn't think so.
"I don't think it'll be at the end," Sid said. "I think it'll come in the middle. At the start, those first 10 games, there was so much adrenaline. Everybody couldn't wait to play. At the end, you'll see that adrenaline again because teams will be fighting for the playoffs. It's in the middle where things might be different."
There were any number of guesses, as the lockout spilled toward the holidays, as to what constituted a "legitimate" hockey season -- 50 games, 41, 48? As various drop-dead scenarios finally were introduced, 48 began to calcify in part due to precedent, namely the 48-game span of the 1994-95 season after another collective bargaining agreement got lost in the mail.
That June in Detroit, with temperatures soaring past 100 degrees, the Red Wings and Devils convened to begin a Stanley Cup final virtually no one saw coming. The Devils, a fifth seed, were in the final for the first time, and the Red Wings, though they were roundly judged superior to New Jersey, hadn't been to the final since 1966.
The high-powered Red Wings scored exactly seven goals in four games, and the nondescript Devils essentially bored them to death with a system played to perfection by the likes of Neal Broten, Billy Guerin, Claude Lemieux, Bobby Holik and Scott Stevens in front of a 23-year-old Martin Brodeur.
It would be 17 years before another team seeded fifth or lower would win another Stanley Cup, your 2012 Los Angeles Kings.
Was a New Jersey sweep in 1995 the legitimate result of a legitimate hockey season?
The Devils certainly thought so, even if they wound up hosting a Stanley Cup parade in an East Rutherford parking lot.
Bylsma said Tuesday he thought that typical NHL quality had returned to the ice after the first "eight or nine" games. I'll take that to mean that the standard search for common consistency might now be a worthy endeavor.
Good luck with that.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org. First Published February 13, 2013 5:00 AM