-- April probably seems far, far away to the Pittsburgh Penguins
right about now, with their season not yet halfway over. Yet they already have reason to worry about the Stanley Cup Playoffs they aspire to make -- and it's not just because they don't know when injured stars Sidney Crosby
and Kris Letang
will be ready to play again as they deal with concussion-related issues.
First, the Penguins simply have no home-ice advantage against the Philadelphia Flyers
, the cross-state rivals who are directly above them in the Atlantic Division standings.
The Flyers are 4-0-0 the last two seasons in Consol Energy Center, where they play with visible confidence and, seemingly, not much trepidation. Their latest victory was a 4-2 decision Thursday night that gave them a two-point edge in the standings over the Penguins, who have gone 14 months without beating the Flyers in regulation.
That the Flyers won largely because of goals by former Penguins-turned-Flyers Jaromir Jagr
and Max Talbot made the evening all the more disappointing for Pittsburgh, which had won four in a row and was looking to extend a climb up the standings even as Crosby's latest layoff approaches the one-month mark.
"The most important thing is we won in Pittsburgh, it's a tough team to play, especially in their building," Jagr said. "They still don't have Sidney Crosby
and (yet they are) right behind us in the standings."
The Penguins are 16-10-3 without Crosby this season, and 39-23-8 over the last two seasons, but being without their best player certainly seems to be hurting them against the best teams. They are 1-5-0 against the top five teams in the Eastern Conference and a combined 3-7-1 against the top five in both conferences, based on the standings going into Thursday night's play.
To Pittsburgh defenseman Ben Lovejoy
, the mistake the Penguins (21-12-4) made in this one was trying to play like the Flyers (22-10-4).
"We've played a bunch of good teams, but we let them be good against us," Lovejoy said. "We didn't get to the game we wanted. We wanted to play behind their net, and you do that with good execution through the neutral zone and grinding down low. They're a team that goes chance for chance and wants to be a rush team, and we don't. Perhaps we played to their strengths and tried to go rush for rush with them."
, who uncharacteristically failed to score a goal in a home game, isn't quite sure why the Penguins struggle against better teams.
The Penguins are 11-4-2 this season at Consol -- partly because Neal has scored 14 of his 21 goals there -- yet they have won only once there in a combined six games against the Flyers, Bruins, Capitals, Blues, Red Wings and Blackhawks.
"I don't know if it's a cause for concern, but we just need to bear down and win those games, I mean those are huge games," Neal said. "We know they're good hockey teams. The onus is on us and we've got to play them harder and be the better team."
The Penguins didn't lack a reason to play well, especially given the buildup for the Jagr and Talbot returns and the opportunity they had to jump over Philadelphia in both the division and conference standings.
"We were revved up to play," Neal said. "It's a tough way to play when you're so ready to go."