Pens Look for Consistency

When the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Boston Bruins on Sunday afternoon, they’ll be looking to snap out of a three-game skid of mostly disappointing hockey.

First the Penguins were shut out for the first time this season last Tuesday in a 4-0 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden, a game in which the team looked lifeless from the get-go. They allowed the first goal 1:12 into the contest, managed only five shots in the first two periods combined, ending with 18 to New York’s 31, and failed to convert on any of their five power play opportunities, while the home team went 2-for-6 on the man advantage.

“We didn’t generate a lot, that’s for sure,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We had no reason not to go out there and play well; as far as preparation goes, we know what we need to do, but if you’re not prepared to work out there there’s not a lot that’s going to happen.”

“There’s no excuses, no question about it,” said sophomore Jordan Staal. “We should’ve been up for this game and if I had an answer I’d tell you. That’s a question we’ve probably all got to ask ourselves.”

Rangers captain and former Penguin Jaromir Jagr credited his team’s fourth line with shutting down Pittsburgh’s potentially explosive offense. “They did a good job against Crosby, and if you shut down Crosby, you have a pretty good chance to win the hockey game,” Jagr said. “He’s a great player; I would say he’s 50 percent of their offense.”

The Penguins next headed to Boston on Thursday, where it looked like déjà vu of two nights earlier, but this time in Pittsburgh’s favor. Evgeni Malkin scored two – including one just 55 seconds into the game – to help the Penguins build a 4-0 lead of their own. The team watched that lead evaporate, however, giving up four goals in the second half of the game before finally edging the Bruins 5-4 in a shootout.

The game was a notable one in Crosby’s young career, as he dropped the gloves for the first time against Boston defenseman Andrew Ference. Crosby held his own in the fight against the former Penguin, getting in some solid rights before Ference took him down, and earned the “Gordie Howe hat trick” by collecting a goal, an assist – two, actually – and a fight on the evening.

The Penguins couldn’t build on the momentum of the shootout win when they returned home to Mellon Arena on Friday to face the New York Islanders. Pittsburgh let the game slip away by surrendering another lead, going up 2-1 before allowing three unanswered goals and falling to the Islanders 4-2.

“It was pretty ugly; just a sloppy game,” Crosby said. “There wasn’t much going on out there, a lot of neutral zone play, there wasn’t much skating, the puck was bouncing everywhere, just ugly hockey really. You have to make sure that you don’t make mistakes in games like that, because if you make one, it hurts you.”

The game might’ve been a little less ugly for Pittsburgh if their struggling power play had found a way to cash in on more than one of six chances, particularly during a four-minute stretch with the man advantage late in the second period when the game was tied 2-2. And the problem can’t even be attributed to the Penguins’ oft-seen tendency to pass up shots in search of the pretty play.

“I don’t think we’re really guilty of that right now; I think we’re trying to keep it pretty simple,” said Crosby. “It’s just a matter of executing, and now teams are trying to block shots more and get in lanes. I’m not saying you have to have a nice play all the time, but we have the skill that can make some plays and make some passes, and we have to move the puck better.”

If anything, Crosby said, the Penguins’ recent struggles on the power play might be causing them to overthink it. “We want to keep it simple so sometimes there’s plays there that with our skill we can make, but that particular time maybe we try to shoot it because we want to keep it simple,” he said. “Then there’s other times that the best thing to do is shoot, and we don’t want to try to make a play. Right now mentally we hurt ourselves sometimes, but we’ve just got to find a way.”

The Penguins could also use more consistency in goal, where they’re looking for backup Dany Sabourin to rise to the challenge of his new number one status. After starter Marc-Andre Fleury went down with a high ankle sprain that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks, Sabourin helped the team to two big shootout wins in western Canada. Since then, however, he’s 1-4 in his last five starts and struggled against the Islanders, letting up two soft goals.

“We expect him to be better,” said head coach Michel Therrien. “He’ll have to practice hard and make sure he’s ready for games.” Therrien added that “we’ll have to make some decisions next game,” implying that Ty Conklin, who made 37 saves in the Penguins’ shootout win at Boston on Thursday, might get the nod in Sunday’s rematch with the Bruins.

Notes… Brooks Orpik, the Penguins’ most physical defenseman, seemed to fall into disfavor with the coaches after an interference penalty he took against the Rangers, and has been a healthy scratch for the next two games…

Pittsburgh’s two goal scorers in the shootout at Boston, Erik Christensen and Kris Letang, are among the league’s best in that category. Christensen is 4-for-5 in shootout attempts this year, while Letang has scored on all three of his chances so far…

The Penguins are playing to packed houses at Mellon Arena this season. The game against the Islanders was their 30th consecutive regular season sellout, tying a franchise record. Every game so far has drawn a standing-room-only sellout crowd at the Igloo, which seats 16,940.

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