By Matt Popchock

It couldn’t have been planned any better.  Your 2010-11 Pennsylvania Cup champions–the Mars Planets, the Bishop Canevin Crusaders, and the Upper St. Clair Panthers–took the ice at Consol Energy Center Tuesday night as their friends, family, and peers applauded the three Penguins Cup champs, who had swept the Flyers Cup winners for the first time since 2006.

During the first intermission of Tuesday’s game, with the Pens and Flyers tied 1-1 in a pivotal battle for regular season Eastern Conference supremacy, the Pittsburgh Penguins took an impeccably-timed moment to honor the local high school teams.

Then, for the next 40 minutes, the Pittsburgh Penguins played like one.

It’s not just that they missed an opportunity to pull even with Philly and perhaps, as a long-term effect, improve their playoff stead before the derby begins.  It’s that, once again, the team we all love to hate played the role of Darth Vader, taking a light-saber to the hand of the Atlantic Division’s Luke Skywalker, and once again, the Penguins lost their poise in a potentially important game.

Maybe the Force just isn’t with the 2010-11 Penguins.

Writing this team off long ago would have been in step with conventional wisdom, considering how the hockey gods have conspired against the health of this team.  Against the odds, the Pens were exactly where they wanted to be entering Tuesday night, and keeping things in their proper perspective, the simple fact that game was remotely meaningful to them is quite commendable.

But if this scrappy squad could get that far, why couldn’t it take the next step?  This team has already risen above the level of adversity facing it, so why couldn’t it keep climbing?  Why couldn’t the Penguins play more respectably–or, dare I ask, winin a marquee matchup against a marque opponent, especially on home ice?

These myriad questions are part of what has made the regular campaign so enigmatic.  Hopefully they’re not part of an early postseason undoing.

Now that the Flyers have embarrassed them in their own barn yet again, the Penguins, in all probability, will settle for the Eastern Conference’s No. 4 seed, even after a probable (and incredible) 100-point finish.  Chances are the Tampa Bay Lightning will be on the other end of a first-ever Eastern Conference Quarterfinal collision between the two clubs, regardless of how their remaining handful turns out.

Having said that, Dan Bylsma was right to call Thursday’s matchup a statement game for the Penguins.  The Penguins need to make the statement that, despite what the numbers suggest, they are above playing below par against the NHL’s upper-echelon teams.  They need to make the statement that the “real” Pittsburgh Penguins aren’t going to pull their disappearing act when it’s time to play the Lightning “for real.”

Please note the following:

*Including Tuesday’s setback the Penguins are 4-10-1 at Consol Energy Center against Eastern Conference teams that would make the playoffs if they started today.  The silver lining is that the four wins include a pair of decisive victories over the Lightning.  The black cloud is the nasty-looking 0-5-1 mark against the Flyers and Rangers, two divisional foes and two teams against whom they have held their own in recent years.  The Pens also dropped two to the Montreal Canadiens–a postseason matchup they’d probably like to avoid for multiple and equally obvious reasons.

*The Penguins are 2-7-1 in nationally televised contests.  Last time I checked, there are usually a few extra cameras in the building during the Stanley Cup Playoffs.  Just sayin’.  This includes a loss in the first-ever regular season game at Consol Energy Center to Philly, and another loss to the Flyers in December with the Atlantic Division lead on the line.  It also includes two home losses to Washington, namely a performance in the Winter Classic that rivaled the dreariness of the weather.  It also includes one of those aforementioned losses to the Broadway Blueshirts, which really put a dent in the Pens’ division title hopes.

On Tuesday the Penguins, in that respect, ultimately picked up where they left off.  The team, from top to bottom, looked flat.  They played tentatively in front of Marc-Andre Fleury–who naturally laid an egg mere hours after I praised him in this blog–on the back end, and up front they didn’t play with the same inspiring–and necessary–gusto as they did in more hostile environs last Thursday.

I’m not saying they were scared, but frankly, the Penguins looked scared, and I’ve yet to figure out why, after all that team has been through.

They are one of several NHL franchises that, come April, has demonstrated how meaningless regular season hockey can be, and that playing successful playoff hockey requires an unique amount of energy and team chemistry that some just don’t have.  But last spring the Penguins also demonstrated you can’t just turn on a switch and expect the juices to flow.  If they can’t get up for a spotlight game like Tuesday’s, are we to believe that coming together in a season-changing playoff contest will be a problem later?

I still believe this team is capable not necessarily of another Cup, but of a respectable playoff run at least.  The Penguins, however, need to do a better job proving it against the caliber of teams that will stand in their path.  That’s the statement Disco Dan rightfully says his Pens need to make, especially considering Sidney Crosby might not be around to help them make it after all.

On Tuesday the Pens eerily resembled the team that ended the ’09-’10 stretch run looking above-average at best, a team that didn’t play its best hockey when it needed to.  Let’s just hope we’re not looking in that same mirror two Thursdays from now.

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