PITTSBURGH (AP) - Mike Johnston tried to sound upbeat. The first-year Pittsburgh Penguins coach pointed out all the positives he saw from another lost weekend, one in which his stumbling team imploded in one game and looked snakebit in another.
Eventually, however, he gave up. Scoring chances and carrying the play for long stretches are nice. Wins - regardless of how they come - are better. And they’re not coming nearly fast enough to stanch Pittsburgh’s perilous slide through the Eastern Conference standings. Entering the final week of the regular season, the Penguins are clutching to a playoff spot that hardly looks like a sure thing anymore.
“We need more,” Johnson said. “We have to find more. We have to dig down and search for more. It’s a results-oriented business. You’ve got to win games this time of year.”
Pittsburgh let an early two-goal lead slip away in a 5-3 loss to Columbus on Saturday and were beaten 4-1 by Philadelphia on Sunday despite peppering Flyers goaltender Steve Mason with 47 shots. Rather than resting for the postseason’s opening round or jockeying for seeding - staples this time of year for most of the last decade - the Penguins travel to surging Ottawa on Tuesday night needing a victory to breathe some life into a maddeningly uneven year.
No pressure or anything.
“This is the time of year where you have to be desperate and every point is so important,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve got to find a way to generate more offense and find a way to win games.”
It’s not happening. Pittsburgh had the Eastern Conference’s best record at Christmas, surviving a weird bout with the mumps by relying on rejuvenated goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and enough grit to get by. The Penguins are just 20-20-6 over their last 46 games. Injuries to stars Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang haven’t helped. Neither has an offense that is less than the sum of its considerably talented parts.
Though Crosby’s 81 points lead the league, Pittsburgh is 19th in goals per game (2.67) and has scored more than three goals in regulation just once over the last month. Johnston is quick to praise his team’s “compete level” - one of his favorite phrases - but rarely has that competition turned into good fortune. Several times against the Flyers the Penguins had the puck on their stick and an empty net to shoot at only to misfire.
Even when the Penguins have been able to deliver, they haven’t been able to sustain their momentum. Three times over the last two weeks they’ve let early 2-0 leads slip away, the latest on Saturday against Columbus when the Blue Jackets overwhelmed Pittsburgh in the last 25 minutes.
“When you’re up 2-0, you need to shut the door and win the game every time,” defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. “Right now there is doubt in our mind, there is certainly no doubt in the other team’s mind that they can come back against this team and we need to rectify that.”
Better hurry. A loss to the Senators means the Penguins would likely need to sweep a home game against the New York Islanders on Friday and a trip to Buffalo on Saturday to assure themselves a ninth straight postseason appearance. It’s not exactly what owner Mario Lemieux had in mind when he cleaned house last summer, firing coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero following a fifth consecutive summer that ended shy of a spot in the Stanley Cup Finals.
Bylsma was among the most successful regular season coaches in the league during his five-plus years on the bench. New general manager Jim Rutherford stressed a slight shift in direction was needed, not a total overhaul. Johnston spent the early portions of the year trying to implement his puck-possession heavy system only to see it derailed as he tried to find enough healthy bodies to fill out a roster on a given night.
Lately, the Penguins have even given up that pursuit. They played one or two men short the last couple weeks while Malkin, Letang and defenseman Christian Ehrhoff dealt with various injuries. Malkin returned on Sunday and played 18 minutes in just his third game since March 14.
Even with the loss to Philadelphia the Penguins are 9-2-1 the last dozen times Crosby and Malkin have played in the same game. Their second-half swoon can be erased with a lengthy playoff run. Of course, that assumes Pittsburgh gets there. At the moment, that hardly seems wise. And the Penguins know it.
“You have to be resilient,” Johnston said. “The toughest time to be resilient is when things are going against you. You have to dig down.”
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