Gene Collier: Penguins' nice start soured quickly by awful effort

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Not sure if the Penguins purposefully chose the second intermission to make this announcement or if I simply missed it in the first, but reminding the live audience that tickets for the first two games of the Stanley Cup playoffs go on sale Monday seemed suddenly ill-advised.

Would those also be the last two games of the Stanley Cup playoffs, as in the only two played in Pittsburgh this spring?

Don't think that some grumblers in the customary sellout hadn't just absorbed that very thought, having just been freshly insulted by some 20 minutes of the worst hockey seen Uptown in a long time.

Outshot, 12-6, and out-goaled, 2-0, in the middle frame, the Penguins had just escaped to the dressing room down, 3-1, to the spectacularly indifferent Carolina Hurricanes. If you've always wanted to see an AHL game and just never got around to it, you can cross that off the list if you've got a ticket stub from this one.

"Our effort the last 50 minutes was unacceptable, 1 through 20," said defenseman Brooks Orpik, referring to all but the first 10 minutes of play and everyone in a dark sweater. "Every guy out there was getting beat on loose pucks and battles. In the first 10 minutes, we played the right way, but we couldn't keep it up, and that's disappointing."

True, the Penguins outshot the Hurricanes at the start, 11-1, and put the 12th shot behind Carolina netminder Anton Khudobin, the affable Kazakhstanian, but Chris Kunitz's 35th of the season was the final productive image of a dreadful night.

"I don't know if it's focus, but the effort was very questionable for everybody," Orpik went on matter-of-factly, as though he had just witnessed a fender bender on Center Avenue. "You see guys out there like [Carolina's Jeff] Skinner and [Nathan] Gerbe, who aren't the biggest guys, and they're pushin' us around and winning battles.

"It doesn't matter what team you play. They can be at the bottom of the standings. If you're not ready, they can exploit you and make you look pretty silly. That's what happened here tonight."

No one walked into the building trying to find a plot line like this one: Could the Penguins match Carolina's rampant fecklessness with a giant collective shrug of their own?

But darned it they couldn't.

Worse, it wasn't all that surprising. The Hurricanes floated onto the ice with a record of 32-32-11. They take that kind of perfect mediocrity pretty seriously, apparently, their tepid competitive yin and yang extending even to the fact that they were a virtually mirror-imaged 15-17-5 on the road against 17-15-6 at home.

The Penguins didn't flinch; after all, they are themselves a markedly flaccid 8-8-1 since March 1. Between themselves and the 'Canes, it was hard to tell which was the team playing out a dreary winter and which was the team hawking playoff tickets between periods.

Dan Bylsma's team has spent too much time trying to differentiate between opponents who are already playing playoff hockey and those already playing for next season, and there's no longer much question as to the urgency level wafting off the Penguins.

You've heard that tired construct "If the playoffs were to begin tonight ... "?

Well, had the playoffs began Tuesday, the Penguins would be down, 1-0. Facing a genuine playoff-caliber opponent, they could easily have lost, 8-0.

The more foreboding aspect of this one was that even after the home team surrendered three consecutive goals in a comically bad stretch, they still had more than 25 minutes to work out of a two-goal deficit.

They refused.

"The first [Carolina] goal is not indicative of our poor puck management; it was an execution play and it gets away from Matt Niskanen," Bylsma said when I asked if he was surprised his team could not recover from the totality of its second-period errors. "The turnovers at the blue line and through the neutral zone, that was indicative of our play in the game.

"I don't think anyone should be accepting that from our team."

You could point out at this juncture, in that quasi-snarky way of yours (meaning mine), that performances such as the past dozen and a half by the Penguins are the very reason you bother starting 40-15-2 -- so that maybe you can play this way for the final six weeks and get away with it.

But now you're facing a three-game road trip, not to mention the embarrassment of having to clinch the Metropolitan Division in some not-terribly-Metropolitan outpost such as Winnipeg or perhaps the wilds of Minnesota.

That'd be a good name for a hockey team.

The Penguins will return home a week from tonight with three games left on the schedule and at least four remaining in the postseason. Perhaps by then they'll be of a mind to extend themselves.

Gene Collier: First Published April 1, 2014 11:39 PM

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