Coach Michel Therrien referred to some of his players as no-shows after the Pittsburgh Penguins' latest loss. If his team keeps playing the way it has for the past two months, it also won't be showing up for the postseason.
One of the league's worst records since the beginning of December has the Penguins on the outside of the playoff picture with two months to play, and on Wednesday they'll try to avoid a four-game losing streak when they host the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Good things were expected from Pittsburgh (24-23-5) after it made it to the Stanley Cup finals last season before losing to Detroit in six games.
The Penguins lived up to their billing in the first two months of the season, posting a 15-6-4 record through Dec. 4 that had them near the top of the Eastern Conference.
They've been dreadful since. Pittsburgh is 9-17-1 over the last two months and has the second-fewest points in the NHL over that span. A 4-2 loss in Montreal on Tuesday night was the Penguins' third straight, and left them three points behind Florida for the East's eighth and final playoff spot.
"We got beat by high speed," Therrien said. "Our guys looked really, really slow tonight. We can't give up four goals on the road and then not score more than two. You need more desperation from a lot of players - some players were a no-show."
Pittsburgh's offense remains strong. Evgeni Malkin (76 points) and Sidney Crosby (68) lead the league in points, and the Penguins' 156 goals through 52 games are 10 more than they had at this point last season.
However, a defense ravaged by injuries - most notably to five-time All-Star Sergei Gonchar, who has yet to play a shift - hasn't been the same. Pittsburgh is allowing 3.04 goals per game, and Marc-Andre Fleury's goals-against average is 2.85 - more than one-half goal higher than in 2007-08.
Fleury stopped 27 of the 29 shots he faced in the Penguins' first meeting with Tampa Bay this season on Dec. 23 at Mellon Arena, but he wasn't the problem. Pittsburgh managed just 15 shots on Lightning goaltender Mike Smith in a 2-0 loss.
Losing to Tampa Bay (17-24-10) wasn't an isolated event. The Lightning have dominated the Penguins in recent years, going 14-3-0 since the start of the 2003-04 season, including eight wins in nine visits to Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay could use any good news it can get after dropping its last three games. The Lightning looked to be getting themselves turned around with three consecutive victories from Jan. 19-27, but after scoring 14 goals in those wins they've totaled just four during the current skid.
Vincent Lecavalier's third-period goal was all the Lightning could muster Tuesday in a 3-1 loss to the NHL-worst New York Islanders.
"The second period, we're down 3-0 and put ourselves in a tough hole," forward Ryan Craig said. "You create your own breaks, and we need that sense of urgency."
Karri Ramo started in goal for the Lightning because of an upper-body injury that sidelined Smith, but was pulled in favor of rookie Mike McKenna, who stopped all 11 shots he faced.
Smith is listed as day-to-day.
Crosby has two assists in his last five games against the Lightning. Malkin, meanwhile, has scored a goal in three of his previous five contests versus Tampa Bay.
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