Collier: This loss should quiet down Cup talk a little

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Although it absolutely should have been evident at several urgent points in an unsettling evening, the image of Marc-Andre Fleury spinning to the ice as his helmet shot away like a champagne cork finally made the point as dramatically as possible.

When the Penguins' uber valuable goaltender finally got to his skates and drifted over to retrieve his hockey hat, mostly to make sure his head was not in it, the tenuous nature of all hockey presumptions blared loud enough to rival the typically monstrous Consol Energy Center audio.

You might take it on faith that Dan Bylsma's team is on the verge of an extended spring. Or you might base that presumption on all manner of secular evidence, such as the wondrous similarities between this team and the Penguins' vintage 1992-1993 edition, widely regarded as the most mature and talent-concentrated hockey product that has been on ice around here.

But on a night when Fleury took the worst of two multiple-body collisions, the Penguins saw their playoff lives pass before them a full two weeks before the playoffs even exist.

It certainly wasn't an elegant question I asked Bylsma 10 minutes after the Islanders skunked the Penguins, 5-3, but it was an elegant answer in a classically minimalist way.

"Obviously, there are a lot of valuable players on this team, but when you see Fleury get run into twice and take a shot that appears to stun him as well, is it hard not to shudder at what an injury to him might mean?"

Bylsma pursed his lips.

Nodded his head.

Didn't form a word, and didn't have to.

"How do you spell that Dan?"

"Several head nods," he said.

Bylsma said he didn't pull Fleury from the ice after two periods for health reasons. Unless it was the head coach's mental health.

The collision that popped Flower's hat off was courtesy of Penguins defenseman Paul Martin, who was trying to chase down New York's Frans Nielsen as he was about to pump his second goal of the game past Fleury and expand the Islanders' lead to 5-2. Martin drilled Fleury instead and spun him hard to the ice, but that probably wasn't the scarier impact involving the new 2-9er.

Five minutes earlier, Deryk Engelland and Chris Kunitz were trying to head off Islanders center Josh Bailey as he headed down the slot, and all three men hit the deck in front of Fleury and drove him and the net into the rear boards. The slow motion replay showed Fleury's left knee on the ice in a sickeningly vulnerable position just before impact, but Fleury seemed more displeased by his performance than his the evening's slapstick.

"I was more worried about [Bailey]; I was trying to get in his way," Fleury said. "I took a puck on the jaw but it was nothing. I got pulled because I let in five."

The more analytical among the Penguins did not regard what was only the team's sixth loss in 34 games as an aberration, but rather a pattern of defensive inconsistency.

"The last couple of games we've been putting pressure on our goalie," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, who allowed Kyle Okposo to get around him at the blue line on New York's third goal. "We've gotta be patient. The goals will come if you play well in your own end. People keep asking about this game. I don't think it's just this game. I think it goes back to the Winnipeg game [an 8-4 victory March 20]. Ever since then it seems we're giving up a lot of chances."

It's a good time, finally, for Stanley Cup talk to seem incongruent.

Cup talk started locally in November, concurrent with the re-emergence of Sidney Crosby from 10-plus months of concussion limbo. It sprang forward again with Crosby's second re-emergence, this one said to be from pain-in-the-neck-like symptoms.

And as the Penguins hammered together the 10-game home winning streak that ended last night, polished it to high gloss around the full complement of opulent talent with which Mario Lemieux's management team has blessed this city, the fan base was putting the full screenplay for the NHL playoffs into full audible sentences like, "I just don't see anyone out there better than the Penguins."

Really?

How 'bout the Islanders?

This game was supposed to be a gimme for the Penguins in the final push to topple the New York Rangers for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. It probably was a gimme. It just wasn't, I guess, a takey.

It's not so much that the now likely fourth-place finish portends a first-round collision with Philadelphia, a far more difficult assignment than a club as strong as the Penguins probably deserves. It's more that the Islanders, a club with no hope of getting postseason reservations, so easily made the Penguins look vulnerable for most of 60 minutes, and could do again Thursday night on Long Island.

And don't forget, all those statistical niceties that compared this club favorably with the Lemieux-led '93 edition weren't necessarily relevant anyway. On the road to that Stanley Cup, not their Stanley Cup, the '93 Penguins took the second exit.



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