PITTSBURGH - 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.
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.
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.
(Dejan Kovacevic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Dejan_Kovacevic.)