By Matt Popchock

In a pivotal scene from one of my favorite non-sports movies of all-time, “Apollo 13,” astronaut Jim Lovell, portrayed by Tom Hanks, reluctantly shuts down a fuel cell in order to keep his spacecraft from coming apart altogether and stranding he and his crew in the vacuum of space.

As he receives that command, Lovell turns to fellow astronauts Fred Haise (Bill Paxton) and Jack Swigert (Kevin Bacon) and says, “We just lost the moon.”

In one interview, the real Jim Lovell later recalled the drastic mood swing he endured in that moment, going from the professional disappointment of not being able to achieve the goal of his mission to the sobering uncertainty of how the trio would even get home.

I wonder if such a great survivalist and problem-solver would have any advice for Dan Bylsma on how to keep the Penguins’ journey to the playoffs from tumbling off into space without his two best players and over 250 man-games lost to injury?

Hey, what could it hurt to ask?

Anyway, when Bylsma received advice from Mission Control (i.e.: team doctors) to shut down Evgeni Malkin, the lone healthy fuel cell of the Pens’ offense, back at the beginning of February, you might say the team lost any shot it had of reaching “the moon.”  When it became more apparent that Sidney Crosby and his own interplanetary talent might no longer be available this season, the Penguins had to scramble to salvage their mission and return to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Apollo 13 mission became an adjusted plan, which, as Tribune-Review reporter and friend of our radio station Rob Rossi once put it, is a very succinct description of the Penguins’ 2010-11 campaign.

But is it time to re-adjust the plan?

For the record, I did not predict a Cup at the beginning of the year, even with a healthy Crosby and Malkin, because I thought secondary scoring was simply too big a question mark.  Even with guys slowly starting to come off IR, others emerging from the Baby Pens, and forwards James Neal and Alex Kovalev coming to Pittsburgh, I haven’t necessarily been proven wrong.  In essence, my expectations have neither been raised nor lowered.

Nevertheless, the Penguins, at this point, were supposed to be lost in space.  Instead they seem to be gearing up for an inspirational re-entry into the postseason.

Every year in the NHL at least one or two teams, on paper, appear to be primed for a great season, only to see their hopes crushed under a wave of injuries.  This looks to be the year fate has conspired against the Penguins, but this team refuses to accept its fate.  Saturday’s victory over the Bruins in Boston was exactly the way the Pens have tried to–and need to–play in this final month to shore up a playoff spot and prosper beyond round one.

It doesn’t have to be pretty.  It just has to be two points.  At this point, they’ll settle for one…and they have, several times, in fact.

Forget the fact that Matt Cooke didn’t shoot for the empty net quickly enough and that, on two separate but equally important occasions, the Penguins’ defense failed to mark a 6’forever” guy camped out right in the middle of the offensive zone.  That probably wouldn’t have happened, especially in the closing moments of regulation, if the Pens didn’t have to play without No. 1 defenseman Brooks Orpik.

Forget the fact that the Penguins have scored more than three times in a game on only two occasions since the beginning of February, and only one of those two games featured more than three regulation goals, and that they struggled to find the net against the B’s for much of Saturday’s game.  That probably wouldn’t have happened if not for the absence of the Two-Headed Monster.

Forget the fact that Marc-Andre Fleury, the Pens’ best player since the holidays, has been subject to an inordinate amount of pressure given the Penguins’ obvious weakness up front, and that James Neal, one of the men brought in to help address that weakness, is still looking for his first Penguin goal and couldn’t seem to buy one on this latest road trip.  Again, those things probably don’t happen…”if only.”

But the bottom line is, all of it did happen, and the Penguins still won, against arguably the Beast of the East.  Respect that.  Respect everything this team accomplishes from this point forward, because they deserve that respect.

The way this team has accepted and fought through its near-impossible situation without pouting over it publicly deserves high praise.  As cliched as it sounds, only those in the Penguins’ dressing room were the only ones who genuinely believed this team could still be even a shell of what it was earlier in the season, and they are on the verge of proving us all wrong.  Despite the fact their hated rivals to the east continued to play lights-out hockey with the Penguins resembling a MASH unit, the Pens, who are just now starting to get healthier, are still challenging the Flyers for the Atlantic Division title, and possibly other things.

It is a testament to Bylsma, without whom the Penguins would probably be fighting just to make the playoffs, which is where many thought they’d be anyway at this point.  Sometimes coaching can be an over-rated variable in professional sports, but the Pens wouldn’t be near the top of the East without Bylsma’s player-friendly style of leadership and generally upbeat demeanor.

It is a testament to Ray Shero, who used to talk about making this team a tough one to play against.  The resolve and the chemistry of this team comes from talent he assembled.  He had the presence of mind to bring in a forgotten player like Matt Niskanen, who has made an immediate impact, and find a future linemate for Sid at minimal cost, while also having the presence of mind not to panic and to stand pat on trade deadline day.

Above all, it is a testament to the players, especially the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups.  That team hasn’t been one of the best in the AHL for nothing.  The contributions Dustin Jeffrey, Brett Sterling, and others have made to the big club along the way demonstrates how well-peopled this organization really is.

The Penguins have earned a point in six of their last eight contests.  During their recently-ended five-game road swing, they earned six of a possible ten points.  Playing at barely a .500 pace may seem uninspiring, but the way the playoff picture is unfolding right now, it will add up if they keep it up.

Philadelphia, though establishing itself as the de facto team-to-beat in the Eastern Conference, is not playing its best hockey right now, suffering through a four-game losing streak punctuated by a nationally televised game at MSG through which the Flyers sleepwalked en route to a 7-0 loss.  They still have to play the Penguins twice, with only two games in hand and a slim lead in the division.

You could also argue the Bruins are the top team in the East, given their much more stable goaltending situation, but the Penguins have now beaten them twice without a healthy Sid or Geno.  Plus, if history is any guide, the reputation of head coach Claude Julien, whose teams tend to fall apart on him at the end of the season, could be that team’s undoing.  (Remember Game 7 against the Flyers?  Well, so do I.)

Even the always-dangerous Washington Capitals, a potential first-round opponent for the Pens, are muddling through an uncharacteristically up-and-down season in which Alex Ovechkin has not always been himself, and there’s that whole issue of still not having a goaltender with a proven playoff pedigree like Fleury…

So why can’t the patchwork Penguins still achieve the same goals as the “real” Penguins?

Even if they don’t, it would not be an indictment of those left behind to fight the good fight.  It would simply affirm the notion that chemistry is everything in hockey, that the Penguins can’t be at their best unless their chemistry is at its best, and that that can’t happen without its two best players.  Not to sound apologetic, but sometimes it’s easy as a fan to take for granted how tough it is to get five guys on the same page for X number of shifts every night, especially when its five guys who play together once in a blue moon.

It’s perfectly natural to be frustrated by this team’s recent struggles, but I would go so far as to say it’s patently unfair to get angry or turned off.  The Pens are where they are right now not for a lack of effort or a lack of hockey smarts, but merely for the prolonged absence of its top-tier talent.  They have done a commendable job in spite of that absence, and Bylsma has fielded a makeshift team fans should be getting squarely behind as it gears up for the playoffs.

Once those playoffs commence, all things considered, I like this team’s chances to escape the first series, regardless of who opposes it, especially with Fleury continuing to look like a dark-horse Hart Trophy candidate.  Beyond that, whatever happens, happens, especially if Crosby does not return till next year.

In the meantime, just be proud of the way this team continues to scrape together points against all odds, and continues to prove it is capable of playing playoff-caliber hockey at much less than 100 percent capacity.  Even if those points don’t lead them to Lord Stanley, they still lend positive answers to questions about what certain members of this team are really made of heading into next season–questions that lingered after last season’s disappointing finish.

Also, be happy with the fact that Crosby has been well enough to attend the team’s children’s luncheon and reportedly shoot some promotional material over the past week.  As far as “good” news is concerned, that’s about as good as one could ask for.

Meanwhile, even if this season brings with it another disappointing finish to the extent of the Pens not achieving their goal of Stanley-Cup-or-bust, they have demonstrated the character necessary to make 2010-11 what NASA officials later called the Apollo 13 mission: a successful failure.


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