Thursday is not the first deadline to emerge in connection with the lockout that has shut down the NHL since mid-September.
It's just the most significant.
Might even be the first that really, really matters.
It will not simply mark the formal expiration of the league's collective bargaining agreement with its players, or assure that the start of the regular-season will be delayed.
No, what happens between now and Thursday will determine whether teams play a full 82-game regular-season schedule, according to no less an authority than NHL commissioner Gary Bettman.
If there's a deal in place by Thursday, Bettman said, the 2012-13 season will begin Nov. 2, which means all games called off before that date will have been postponed, not canceled.
Should the league and its players not reach an agreement by Thursday, however, Bettman said an 82-game schedule will be off the table. Along, most likely, with the latest CBA proposals put forth by both sides.
At this point, it's unclear whether the sides will have another negotiating session, let alone a settlement, before the deadline arrives. The league and NHLPA have not had face-to-face discussions since late last week and have said nothing about any talks being set up.
All of which makes it difficult for many who have a vested interest in the negotiations to be upbeat about the chances of reaching an agreement within the next 48 hours or so.
"It certainly doesn't look optimistic," defenseman Ben Lovejoy said Monday after a Penguins informal workout at Southpointe. "I'm always hopeful, [but] I think I've been too optimistic throughout this whole thing."
Left winger Matt Cooke said, "I'm optimistic that there's going to be a deal, but I don't know what [the] time frame" will be. He also acknowledged that an 82-game schedule will become impractical if the lockout drags on long enough, regardless of whether Thursday is a firm deadline.
"There has to be some sort of date when you're not going to be able to play 82 games," Cooke said. "That doesn't mean the season is [going to be wiped out]. Just that you can't play 82 games."
Winger Craig Adams, the Penguins player representative, confirmed that there has been no word of a negotiating session being scheduled, and that he had no plans in place to travel to New York or Toronto to sit in on any such meeting.
While Adams said he is uncertain whether there could be any flexibility in the NHL's deadline for squeezing in a full season -- "I'm not in a position to say that if we'd start a week later [than Nov. 2], it can't be done," he said -- he volunteered that an agreement "would have to get done pretty quickly" to make 82 games feasible.
Salvaging the entire 2012-13 season is the immediate objective, although failing to do so won't necessarily doom the NHL to the kind of nuclear winter it experienced in its most recent lockout, in 2004-05.
Because an abbreviated season remains an option, however undesirable it might be to some, the risk of having fewer than 82 games won't automatically give either side extra leverage over the next few days.
"All of us love playing hockey and we'd like to get a deal done," Lovejoy said. "But just because it's 82 doesn't mean one side is going to give up and lay down for the other."
Several players, asked Monday what guidance they might offer to Bettman and/or NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr in advance of their future meetings, declined to accept the challenge.
Lovejoy, however, embraced it, and offered this succinct advice:
"I think I would say, 'Let's do what's best for the game. Let's do everything in each [party's] power to get the deal done.
" '[Endeavor] to understand both sides' point of view and do what's smart for the owners, the players and the fans.' "
NOTES -- Only six Penguins -- Joe Vitale, Matt Niskanen, Pascal Dupuis, Cooke, Adams and Lovejoy -- participated Monday in a workout. Sidney Crosby, James Neal and Chris Kunitz are working out with a group of NHL players this week in Dallas. ... Evgeni Malkin had a goal and three assists in Metallurg Magnotogorsk's 5-2 victory against Dinamo Riga in a Kontinental Hockey League game.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com and Twitter @MolinariPG.