As Stanley Cup champions, the Carolina Hurricanes are expected to defend their title. Unless they improve their play down the stretch, they may not even have the chance.
Carolina looks to get back on the winning track Friday night when it hosts NHL scoring leader Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The Hurricanes (32-27-7) had a chance to move up the Eastern Conference standings when they met Ottawa in a home-and-home series, but they lost the opener 4-2 at home on Tuesday before a 2-0 road defeat Wednesday.
That kept Carolina ninth in the East, one point behind eighth-place Montreal but only two points ahead of Toronto.
"We don't need anyone to tell us that. We can look at the standings ourselves and see where we're at and see where our desperation level needs to be," Carolina forward Justin Williams said. "As of now, we're out of the playoffs and that's inexcusable for this team, this franchise."
One reason the Hurricanes find themselves scrambling for a playoff berth is their play at home, where they have lost three of four. They are just 16-13-4 at the RBC Center after they led the East with a 31-8-2 record there last season.
A punchless power play also has contributed to Carolina's recent struggles. That unit is 1-for-22 in its past five games after going scoreless on eight opportunities Wednesday.
Right wing Anson Carter, acquired from Columbus on Feb. 23, has no points in his first three games with the Hurricanes after failing to record a point in his final four contests with the Blue Jackets.
Carolina's Ray Whitney has five goals and 15 assists in his last 10 games against Pittsburgh. He leads the Hurricanes with 27 goals and 73 points this season.
Crosby was held without a goal in regulation for 14th time in 15 games, but registered the only shootout tally Thursday in the Penguins' 4-3 come-from-behind victory over the New York Rangers.
"Games are going to be tight," Crosby said. "We are not going to complain about wins."
Pittsburgh (34-20-9) erased a two-goal deficit with consecutive short-handed goals by NHL leader Jordan Staal and Colby Armstrong to start a three-goal third period.
"We got some big plays, especially in the penalty kills," Crosby said.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 32 saves in his second straight strong start following a brief benching. He then turned aside Michael Nylander, Jaromir Jagr and Petr Prucha in the shootout.
Crosby was held without a point in back-to-back games for only the second time this season and remained stuck on 199 for his career. The 19-year-old phenom, who will be the youngest in league history to reach 200 points, went a career-high three games without a point from Nov. 27-Dec. 1, 2005.
Forwards Gary Roberts and Georges Laraque, acquired in separate deals at Tuesday's trade deadline, each went scoreless in their Penguins' debuts. Roberts, 40, played on a line with Crosby and 39-year-old Mark Recchi.
The Hurricanes outscored the Penguins 11-3 in winning the first two meetings this season, but Pittsburgh responded with a 3-0 home victory on Jan. 2. Carolina is 4-1-0 in its last five home games in the series.