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Frustrated Penguins puzzled over slump

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The Canadian Press
12/31/2008 12:49:52 PM
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PITTSBURGH - The Pittsburgh Penguins held a players-only meeting following their fourth consecutive home loss, a 5-2 defeat to the Boston Bruins that exposed the many differences between them and the Eastern Conference leaders.

Coach Michel Therrien's only reaction: What took them so long?

Taking an indirect shot at some of his stars, Therrien said the team that lost only two games in three conference playoff rounds last spring must go back to being that - a team.

"We've got to start thinking about the team concept, not personal agendas," Therrien said following the loss Tuesday night. "Let's start from there.

"Team concept is the most important thing for any hockey team. Personal agendas, goals, on the list of priorities for players, should be the last one."

Especially when a team that possesses two of the NHL's best scorers, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, isn't scoring many goals. Malkin, the league-leading scorer, doesn't have a goal in five games or in 12 of his last 16. Crosby doesn't have a goal in 12 of his last 14.

As a result, the Penguins have scored only five goals while losing three of their last four, continuing a troubling pattern that began after they won seven of eight to start November.

They began falling back while going 5-8-1 in December, 1-5 at home. The Penguins have lost 10-of-18 at home, two in overtime, and have only two fewer regulation defeats than they had while going 26-10-5 at Mellon Arena last season.

As the Penguins move into 2009 on Thursday by playing a rematch in Boston, some puzzling trends have developed with a mostly young team that was expected to be a conference power for years.

Malkin and Crosby haven't scored on the power play. Malkin hasn't had a power-play goal in 20 games, Crosby has one in 29 games. The constant flow of bad penalties meant Boston had eight power-play chances Tuesday. They've also failed to settle into the defence-first but always-look-for-offence system that worked so well for them when they won 47 games each of the last two seasons.

The Penguins are 19-14-4 - that's only 19 wins in 37 games - and trail Boston by 18 points in the Eastern Conference standings. They are 7-10-1 in their last 18, a slide that has dropped them into seventh place in the conference. Boston is streaking with nine consecutive wins and a 23-2-1 record in its last 26.

The Penguins were surging at this point the last two seasons, following slow starts each time. This team played much better early in the season, but has regressed for six weeks.

"It really comes down to team attitude and preparation, or lack of preparation, that we're putting in as a team," defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "I think the attitude is a little off where it has to be.

"There are no easy games in the league any more. You can't really afford to take a night off and, if you don't have all 20 guys at their best, it's going to cost you."

The Penguins showed that lack of game-to-game focus recently by losing five times during a 15-game span to teams that were .500 or below. Among the defeats was a 2-0 loss at home on Dec. 23 to Tampa, which had the league's second-worst record at the time.

It hasn't helped that the Penguins haven't had the 20 players they expected to have. Defenceman Sergei Gonchar, the key to their power play the last two seasons, has been out all season with a dislocated shoulder and may not return until March.

Ryan Whitney, the Penguins' other top defenceman, resumed playing only last week after missing 2 1/2 months with a foot problem. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, arguably the player most responsible for their playoff run last year, missed 13 games with a groin injury before returning Dec. 18 and has lost four of his last six.

The Penguins don't have much time to find a solution. They play four games in six days beginning Thursday and 11 times in the first 20 days of January. Five of the first seven are on the road.

"When things are going rough, you have to stay the course and make sure guys don't get going off in their own direction," Orpik said. "It's easy to be a good teammate when you're winning games.

"When you're going through rough patches like this, it really tests a guy's character."

Michel Therrien (Photo: Dave Sandford/Getty Images)

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(Photo: Dave Sandford/Getty Images)
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