Penguins get 2 points, but play leaves little doubt season is over

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They probably do not play ice hockey at the Western Pennsylvania School for the Blind, but if they did, it would probably resemble last night's first period between the Penguins and the New York Islanders.

Passes went vaguely in the direction of people with their backs turned, shots were fanned on, nets that yawned open went repeatedly ignored, the ice, by definition, proved very slippery.

The second period wasn't as crisp.

When this game started, the Penguins were within three hours of next year, because anything other than a win against the wretched Islanders -- the same wretched Islanders against whom they'd lost a shootout nine days before to celebrate the arrival of new coach Dan Bylsma -- and this team would be, to borrow a phrase from the infrastructure stimulus, shovel ready.

And not in a good way.

It looked briefly as if the weird science that is this Islanders-Penguins chemistry would yield something different last night, especially when the suspicion arose that the Islanders had given up shots for Lent, or at least had given up shooting the hockey puck. Alas, New York finally slid one into the vicinity of Marc-Andre Fleury with 12:25 left in the first period. The Penguins, by that point, had shot seven times without presenting any evidence that shooting the puck had anything to do with the business of scoring goals.

If the Penguins can't crush the Islanders like a bug on home ice, what chance do they have of returning from an impending five-game road grind featuring four foes with winning records with the postseason still on the table?

None.

Through 40 minutes of scoreless hockey against the worst team in the NHL, the Penguins further demonstrated that being on the power play has no known relation to scoring either. The Penguins appear to run two kinds of power plays: The kind where they don't score and the kind where they don't even shoot. The Islanders only run the second kind.

New York's top scorer, Mark Streit, does not have half the points of Evgeni Malkin. New York's win total was four fewer than any team in the league when the game started. New York did the Penguins the favor of starting the backup goalie, Yann Danis, and still the Penguins showed no particular interest in keeping their season alive, even for another 48 hours.

Sidney Crosby sat this one out with an ouchy groin. Ryan Whitney went home to New England on a personal matter. But it wasn't as simple as no Crosby, no Whitney, no winny.

By the time an equally desultory third period was half over, all this mess lacked was a real signature moment, a memorable freeze frame that might somehow encapsulate the fecklessness and timidity of two bad hockey teams. Fortunately, Christopher Minard provided one.

Flying down the slot behind the New York defense in a 0-0 game, Minard sized up Danis, flashed mentally through his shot options, and ... (what?!) ... floated a drop pass into traffic.

Minard was not about to disrupt the perfect awfulness of this, a night to disremember.

Someone else was going to have to take on that responsibility, and with only 2:28 remaining in the game, someone finally did.

Using the revolutionary offensive concept sometimes called whipping the puck at the net with the idea that even if it doesn't go in, a nearby teammate might run into a rebound, Sergei Gonchar did exactly that from behind a Malkin screen. The rebound got swept across the line by Petr Sykora, and the Penguins had the only goal in a long night of terrible hockey.

"I thought we had good chances against [Danis] we just couldn't put it in," said defenseman Brooks Orpik in a less than exuberant dressing room. "As frustrating as it was not getting any goals for the first two periods, not getting any until the final two minutes, I thought we stayed patient.

"I thought we kept our composure pretty well."

Is that what that was, composure?

Smelled like a noxious mix of disinterest and incompetence.

"Most of their shots in the third period came on the power play and it wasn't so much great plays by them," said Islanders coach Scott Gordon. "It was our inability to get the puck down the ice when we had opportunities, and they got chances off of those."

The Penguins can fool themselves to whatever extent they please that they earned two points that were absolutely indispensable last night, but the way they've played the Islanders over the past 125 minutes of ice time plus a shootout has left little doubt that they've kissed this season good-bye.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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