Just three weeks from tonight, the Penguins will be playing playoff hockey whether they're ready or not, so it was timely that the whole question of who's ready and who's already playing playoff hockey got a thorough examination Tuesday night Uptown.
Didn't go well.
Dan Bylsma ventured earlier in the day that the Phoenix Coyotes were already playing playoff hockey, given their tenuous station on the cusp of Western Conference eligibility.
But unfortunately for him and the customary assemblage of just under 19,000, the Penguins are now effectively, if not formally, in playoff mode, as well -- meaning they're looking skittish and uncertain and have won only twice in the past six games.
In the playoffs, of course, two out of six will get you an early summer.
"There's no excuse there, regarding our play, or how we played," a tight-lipped Bylsma spat in the minutes after a 3-2 victory for the highly defensive Coyotes. "We're really not playing well."
Brandon Sutter, forced to center the second line due to a foot injury to white-hot Evgeni Malkin, mentioned that now is "the time of year you want to peak."
Peak or peek?
If this was a peek at mid-April, expect another hair-raising postseason, perhaps another misbegotten, truncated spring, but perhaps we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves.
Malkin might be ready for the night of April 16, but as for the rest of Bylsma's birds, including James (two goals in March) Neal, no one should even venture a guess.
Had it not been for some impromptu time travel in the first period Tuesday night, I'm not even sure the Penguins would have scored at all against backup goaltender Thomas Greiss.
I can say definitively, as it happens, that the first period of Penguins-Coyotes March 25, 2014 was the longest period of hockey I've ever seen, as it actually measured 22 minutes, 35 seconds.
During a stoppage at 14:36 into the period, on-ice officials were alerted that on a prior Penguins power play, Jussi Jokinen's shot had gone into and out of the net at a velocity not evident to the naked eye, but absorbed easily by Toronto technology. The Penguins, at the time trailing, 1-0, were awarded a tying goal, which replay showed had crossed the goal line with 8:09 on the game clock. So officials wound back the game clock to 8:09 from where it was, showing 5:34 remaining in the period, meaning the subsequent 2:35 had never really happened.
"That was a long time to go without having a whistle," marveled Phoenix defenseman Michael Stone. "And to have all that time put back on the clock, it made it just such a long period. I've never experienced anything like that before."
So in terms of the whole time/space continuum, you can now apparently turn back time in the modern NHL. It should have occurred to someone on the Penguins bench to just sit tight and let them go all the way back to about 2009 -- then you'd see some hockey!
A pity that the 2:35 wasn't put back on the clock immediately after the Penguins failed to score on the two-minute Big Mac Attack. It's an old arena axiom that there's nothing quite like a second shot at a caloric blitzkrieg.
Meanwhile in the future, Sutter seemed mildly pleased at how his line skated without Malkin, but highly irritated at the overall effort.
"I thought we started good, but as a team, we didn't have our game, which takes away from the flow of what's going on," Sutter said. "It's the overall effort that's hurting us.
"They're playing hard. They're a very good defensive team, always are, and they play a patient game, especially when they get up by a goal."
The Penguins' trouble has something to do with effort and, Tuesday in particular, lazy forechecking and questionable discipline, but the major problem remains that this team's depth is all over the ice. Depth is great when it's in Wilkes-Barre. When it's chugging down the ice 2-on-1 and the two are Jayson Megna and Brian Gibbons, magic doesn't always happen.
In that particular case, Megna got virtually nothing on a wide-open shot and Gibbons fanned on a big fat rebound.
Bylsma was especially upset with an offensive-zone penalty by Jokinen midway through the second period, which was petty and retaliatory and acutely ill-advised. Mikkel Boedker flipped the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury just as the Jokinen penalty expired for what stood as the decisive goal.
As the final insult, Neal took another offensive-zone penalty with the Penguins net empty in the final minute.
As constituted this morning, the Penguins are something of a playoff fixer-upper. I'd say repairs should take about three weeks. And nobody's going to turn the clock back this time.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.