Share This Page

Kovacevic: First-round loss would be epic fail for Penguins

| Sunday, April 13, 2014, 11:00 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Kris Letang deflects the puck away from the Senators' Jean-Gabriel Pageau in the second period Sunday, April 13, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins’ Jussi Jokinen (left), James Neal (middle) and Kris Letang celebrate Jokinen’s second-period goal against the Senators on Sunday, April 13, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Senators' Mark Stone celebrates Kyle Turris' second-period goal against the Penguins on Sunday, April 13, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Penguins goaltender Jeff Zatkoff makes a second-period save as the Senators' Erik Condra screens Zatkoff on Sunday, April 13, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins' Tanner Glass and the Senators' Chris Neil fight in the first period Sunday, April 13, 2014, at Consol Energy Center.

The night the Penguins clinched the Metropolitan Division title, April 3 in Winnipeg, not one syllable could be heard on the subject in the visitors' locker room. And never mind champagne or hooting and hollering. I'm talking nothing at all. The coaches gathered their stuff while the athletes unlaced skates, spoke in the dullest of tones of just another W over the Jets, then dutifully packed up for the charter to St. Paul.

How perfect.

Truth is, it's been anything but a joyride, this 2013-14 regular season that ended Sunday night at Consol with a wholly hollow 3-2 shootout loss to the Senators. And that goes not only for the team but also — more so, actually — for the perception all around it.

That 7-1 start?

Yeah, yeah, but wait till mid-April!

The 12-1 tear through November and December?

Hey, that one loss was to Tuukka Rask and the Bruins! Same old same old!

The 51 victories at the finish line, second-most in franchise history?

So why do they still freak out against the Flyers?

For all there was to appreciate this winter, from Sidney Crosby's brilliance to Chris Kunitz's consistency to Olli Maatta's riveting rookie performance, there was always Evgeni Malkin this, James Neal that and Rob Scuderi or Brooks Orpik something else.

And don't even think about bringing up Marc-Andre Fleury.

“Now we're here. This is it,” Jussi Jokinen was telling me minutes after the Penguins' 109th point was notched almost in absentia given all the talent that was smartly held out. “We had a great regular season. Unbelievable, really. But this is a great franchise with great fans, and they expect the Stanley Cup. So it's good to be here. This is it.”

“No question, it's been a different season for our team,” Neal said. “But I think we all know that we've been building toward the playoffs. Our goal is to win the Cup. That's why we're here. That's never changed. And that's what the playoffs give you.”

So, here we are. It's mid-April at long last, and the Penguins will open the Stanley Cup playoffs Wednesday against the Blue Jackets for the first wave of The Only Games That Matter Anymore in Pittsburgh.

And staying within the spirit of all that joylessness, I'll humbly offer the following prediction: If the Penguins lose to Columbus, heads should roll.

Overly dramatic?

Can't see why.

The Blue Jackets are spirited, energetic and tight. They out-huffed a handful of the East's fringe teams over the final month to wrap up a wild-card berth and, as 33-goal sniper Ryan Johansen told Columbus reporters over the weekend, “We feel really good about where we are. We're hungry.”

Swell, but digest these Blue Jackets bullet points, as well:

• They lost all five meetings with the Penguins by a 16-8 margin.

• They'll be without three of their best and most experienced forwards: Nathan Horton, R.J. Umberger and Nick Foligno. Horton's a huge loss, in particular. A beast with soft hands.

• Their current first line in practice is Johansen centering the Jack Skille and the Boone Jenner.

• They have last year's Vezina Trophy winner, Sergei Bobrovsky, but he was yanked after 23 minutes of his only game against the Penguins this season, a 4-2 loss Nov. 1, and Curtis McElhinney started the other four. Otherwise, last time Bob was in any playoff — Penguins vs. Flyers a couple years ago — he was fishing out goals by the touchdown.

• They won't have home ice even when they have home ice, if you follow.

Look, this isn't to suggest the Blue Jackets won't be competitive. As Brooks Orpik aptly put it Sunday, “The one thing you take away for sure from our five games is how hard they compete. A lot of those games had pretty physical, almost playoff-type atmospheres. And they were mostly tight.”

He's right. Two games were decided by a goal, two others by two.

Still, candidly here, the scope of the embarrassment should the Penguins lose is staggering: There would be no excuse based on history (It's 14-4-1 all-time for Pittsburgh). Or injury (the Blue Jackets are even worse off). Or Dan Bylsma being taken to school (Todd Richards, who once hired Bylsma as his assistant at Wilkes-Barre, will be a rookie to the NHL playoffs in his fifth year as a head coach). Or Bylsma botching personnel matchups (there's no real matchup to be had). Or Richards' system fooling them (the blueprints are virtual carbon copies). Or any goaltending edge (Fleury's actually got better playoff pedigree). Or anything.

And that's not to ignore a potential organizational humbling by a Columbus roster founded on six former first-round picks and five second-rounders, while Ray Shero's eight drafts can claim only Maatta, Beau Bennett and Robert Bortuzzo as regulars.

This would be epic fail on a grand scale, all the more when the Penguins' other recent playoff failures would be weighed with it.

One more time: Heads should roll.

I just don't think that'll be necessary.

Penguins in five.

Joyful enough?

Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at dkovacevic@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic

Related Content
TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.