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Champion Penguins slumping as playoffs approach

NHL.com @NHL

PITTSBURGH (AP) -The Pittsburgh Penguins' magic number for clinching a playoff spot is one. Even if there isn't much magic in their game.

Maybe it's the post-Olympics blahs. Or a pre-playoffs lull. Or maybe it's a real cause for concern that the Penguins have won 32 games but lost 29 since starting the season 10-3.

With the postseason only 2 1/2 weeks away, defenseman Brooks Orpik said the Stanley Cup champions would be fortunate to win a single playoff round the way they're playing now.

"We need to play better hockey, we need to get more wins on the board, we need to play a more consistent game and get to that level we can play at," coach Dan Bylsma said Friday.

The Penguins have lost six of 12 since post-Olympic play started, giving New Jersey a chance to overtake them for the Atlantic Division title. That's a worry because finishing fourth in the Eastern Conference standings rather than second - as they would by winning the division - might force them to play Washington and New Jersey in successive playoff rounds.

They haven't beaten either team, going 0-6 against the Devils and 0-1-2 against the NHL-leading Capitals. Overall, they're 4-12-4 against the top third of the NHL, compared to 20-5-3 against the bottom third.

Sidney Crosby is slumping, too, with no goals in six games and one goal in nine games. He hasn't scored a goal during the 11 games that co-star Evgeni Malkin has missed due to injury. Malkin (bruised right foot) is out of Saturday's game against Philadelphia and could miss Sunday's game against Toronto.

Crosby isn't blaming his slide on fatigue or a demanding schedule. Still, since getting two goals and three assists in his first three games after winning the Olympics for Canada, he is a minus-5 over his last nine.

"It's important to get your game to where it needs to be and, hopefully, if you're doing that, you're getting wins," Crosby said. "Being in this situation, hopefully our desperation is there. It needs to be there. We have to fight for those points. ... You can't worry about who's winning and who's losing (around the league), you've got to win your games."

That's a recurrent theme among the Penguins, getting to their game - the one they played last season when they were 14-2-3 in March and April before carrying that momentum through four successful playoff rounds.

"I think we're not quite there yet," center Jordan Staal said. "The way we finished last year, it was do-or-die hockey and every game was huge. There's been spurts here and there (this season) for our group, but it's got to be a more consistent effort every night. We have to find that if we want to be ready for the playoffs."

That might have been Bylsma's biggest accomplishment after replacing Michel Therrien as coach in mid-February 2009, settling the Penguins down so they could play their game.

There is time to do so again this spring, even if there isn't much of it. The Penguins play their next six at home, including an April 6 game against Washington, and they go on the road only twice.

"We need those points - it's better for home ice (for the playoffs)," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "It's important for us. I don't think it's just a flip of the switch. It's harder than that. We've had some good games, but we've had some bad ones."

One problem is secondary scoring; as usual, the Penguins are overly dependent upon their three centers - Crosby (45 goals, 89 points), Malkin (24 goals, 70 points) and Staal (21 goals, 48 points, plus-20) - for scoring. Only one other forward (Bill Guerin, 41 points) has more than 33 points.

Alexei Ponikarovsky, picked up from Toronto on March 2 mostly to play on Malkin's line, has been shuffled among lines with Malkin hurt and has two goals in 10 games. Max Talbot, injured much of the season, has two goals - as many as he scored in Game 7 in Detroit last June.

"We were pretty fortunate we got turned around that quickly (last year)," Staal said. "We're comfortable where we're at now, but we're not satisfied, we want to keep moving forward in the standings. We want to have that second spot. It's something this group wants to strive for."

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