Are Pittsburgh Penguins in meltdown or is ice cream bowl half-full?

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Jim Rutherford, right, shakes hands with Penguins President David Morehouse before he is introduced as the new general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team at a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)
Jim Rutherford, right, shakes hands with Penguins President David Morehouse before he is introduced as the new general manager for the Pittsburgh Penguins NHL hockey team at a news conference on Friday, June 6, 2014, in Pittsburgh. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic)

Perhaps not since “have another donut, you fat pig” has a bizarre food-related non-sequitur entered the collective conscious of hockey fans. 

After the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Game 3 loss to the New York Rangers on Monday night, kindly old GM Jim Rutherford decided to let off some steam at the expense of Rob Rossi, caustic Pittsburgh Tribune-Review columnist, Penguins naysayer and occasional guest on the Marek Vs. Wyshynski podcast (in full disclosure).

It was there, in the bowels of the arena, where Rutherford delivered a dish best served cold:

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After exiting a media elevator and while walking with other reporters to the Penguins' dressing room, Rutherford addressed this columnist, a frequent critic since his hiring last June, in an obscenity-laced diatribe.

“Thanks for your support,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

“You're a (expletive) jerk,” Rutherford said repeatedly.

Rutherford followed the jerk comment with a suggestion to “go sell ice cream now,” then a challenge to look him in the eye, which I did while explaining my role as Trib Total Media's lead sports columnist.

My role is to provide opinion.

“Well, your opinion is (expletive),” Rutherford said.

OK, so it’s not a Bryan Price-level tirade, but it’s still pretty good.

While we’re still baffled by “go sell ice cream,” except to say it might be the ultimate insult for a 66-year-old grandpa, the question remains: Are the Penguins as dire as Rossi makes them out to be, or is his opinion [expletive]?

They’re down 2-1 to the Rangers, but the gap feels much larger. New York’s carried play for most of the series, never seemingly in danger, never all that flustered.

For all the talk about Sidney Crosby’s playoff struggle, Evgeni Malkin has been invisible in this series: No points, four shots on goal and a minus-1.

For all the talk about their retooled bottom six, the only player that’s made an impact is Brandon Sutter, a Ray Shero addition. Aming the scorers, inconsistency reigns. Crosby and Chris Kunitz had their Game 2 resurgence, but not much else. Rutherford’s big score, David Perron, has looked listless.

Mike Johnston, the coach Rutherford hired to take over for the successful by any measure Dan Bylsma, has been outcoached in the series, including the Rangers’ handily winning the possession battle in the first 40 minutes before the Penguins’ mad scramble to try and tie it in the third. But hey, at least he found a way to end the parade of penalties that destroyed the team in Games 1 and 2.

So they’re a mess. They’re a mess if they win Game 4, they’re a mess if they somehow win this series.

But are they an irredeemable mess?

Add Kris Letang, Olli Maata and Christian Ehrhoff to that defense, and what does this team look like? Add Pascal Dupuis' heart and soul to a team that’s completely lacked it, and what do you have? This isn’t to say that man-games-lost is an excuse, because it never was for those Dan Bylsma teams that would win divisions despite unfathomable injury losses.

But that’s a whole lotta talent on the outside of the rink for Pittsburgh. 

Shero stocked the system with young defensemen. There’s still that notion that the Penguins are a forward or two away from igniting their stars’ offense again.

That’s the ice-cream bowl half-full assessment. But what about Rossi’s worldview?

A top-four Eastern seed in each of the previous seven years, they did not qualify for the playoffs until the final night of the regular season and are in the postseason as the No. 8 seed.

A franchise branded for its offensive prowess, co-owned by the team's all-time leading scorer in Lemieux and employing two former two-time scoring champions in Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins finished 19th in goals during the regular season.

They have scored only two goals in their two losses to the Rangers during this series, which they likely would trail, 0-3, if not for Crosby's two-goal surge in a 4-3 win in Game 2 on Saturday night.

Rossi’s gotten the reputation for doom and gloom, hence Rutherford’s ill-conceived in-series tirade. But in speaking with a number of people who cover the Penguins and are close to them, they all say the same thing: There are significant cracks in the foundation of this team. One insider who reached out this morning simply said "so many buried bodies."

The more you think about the hiring of Rutherford, the less it seems like an expert hand coming in to create a champion and the more it seems like a desperation move from a franchise that felt the only solutions were sweeping changes, but that never really thought out the next steps.

Unless the next steps were hiring Mike Babcock, but given the current landscape of available jobs in the NHL, that’s in no way assured.

One of the NHL’s flagship franchises is taking on water. In ice cream terms: It’s a small, increasingly melted lump of vanilla surrounded by a milky soup of disintegrating rainbow sprinkles, held in a bowl by an old man cussing at a professional pessimist for not eating it fast enough.

And somewhere, Dan Bylsma and Ray Shero are eating massive sundaes, smiling through the ice cream headaches, wondering what all the fuss was about if the end result was a team that can’t score, can’t find chemistry and is going to be eliminated by the Rangers with an even more emphatic whimper.

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