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Penguins not in the mood to make excuses

by Dan Rosen
NEW YORK -- With a stiff upper lip the Pittsburgh Penguins are acting as if the elephant in the room is not the reason for their current slump.

Sure, any team that's missing Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin would have trouble winning, but the Penguins, who are missing so much more than just their two superstars right now, say the lineup and lack of star power are not the reasons for why they've lost four out of five and gave up 14 goals during a forgettable weekend trip to New York.

They followed Friday's fight-filled 9-3 loss on Long Island with a 5-3 loss to the Rangers at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

"It shouldn't be," Max Talbot said when he was asked if opponents are finding it easy to play against the Penguins nowadays. "They're (Crosby and Malkin) obviously two of the best in the League and there are a lot of other guys that are hurt, but it's no excuse for us. Everybody in this dressing room has a role, everybody takes pride in playing the right way and we should be able to win some hockey games."

You have to love Talbot's optimism and he, like the rest of the Penguins, deserves credit for not using the obvious built-in excuse for their 1-4 slide. But, facts are facts and the Penguins are obviously easier to play against when Crosby and Malkin are not in the lineup. They become an even easier target when guys like Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu, Arron Asham and the suspended Matt Cooke join the superstars on the sideline, giving way instead to five AHL call-ups who were all in the lineup Sunday at Madison Square Garden.

All told the Penguins played Sunday in front of a soldout Garden crowd without nine forwards when you add Dustin Jeffrey, Eric Tangradi and Eric Godard to the aforementioned Crosby, Malkin, Kunitz, Letestu, Asham and Cooke.

Seriously, name another team that would be able to overcome all of that?

"We have to find ways to win games and guys that are filling those roles like myself and other players, we all need to step up our game," Jordan Staal said. "Everyone on the team needs to elevate their game if we want to win games."

The problem is that hasn't been happening, and it's creating a double whammy against the Penguins.

Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma admitted he'd much rather have told the media the reason for Friday's loss to the Islanders and Sunday's loss to the Rangers had nothing to do with execution and everything to do with personnel, but he couldn't do it.

The Penguins, with almost no room for error, gave the Rangers six power play opportunities and surrendered goals on three of them. They scored on just one of their six power play chances.

"Special teams have been a big factor for our success and the lack thereof," Bylsma said. "If you lose the special teams battle, with the margin for error now, we're starting down a goal and that's not a recipe for success."

It didn't help that the Penguins this weekend were not good on the forecheck and couldn't execute in the offensive zone. After going up 2-0 just 5:06 into Sunday's game they couldn't sustain any pressure and looked frazzled after the Rangers got back in the game with back-to-back goals from Brian Boyle and Ryan Callahan.

"We made mistakes and had details in our game that we let go, and it gave them good opportunities to get goals," Bylsma said. "As a result we found ourselves down after getting up 2-0. We have to have those details regardless of who is in the game, and that was not there."

"We have to find ways to win games and guys that are filling those roles like myself and other players, we all need to step up our game. Everyone on the team needs to elevate their game if we want to win games." -- Jordan Staal

He feels he can get away with saying "regardless of who is in the game" because the minor leaguers he had to use Sunday -- Tim Wallace, Ryan Craig, Joe Vitale, Brett Sterling and Nick Johnson -- all play the same system as the Penguins in the AHL with Wilkes-Barre/Scranton.

"You know what? With or without any guy in the lineup, we're the Pittsburgh Penguins right here and if we play the system and win the special teams battles we have a good chance to win the hockey game," Talbot said. "(Sunday) we lost it, so we lost the game."

All true, but it's hard to play the system when Bylsma clearly has to scale back and adjust due to the monumental changes in the lineup. The Penguins have no other choice now but to elevate their healthy and available NHLers into unfamiliar roles while filling out the lineup card with a bunch of minor leaguers.

It's commendable that they won't use the lineup as an excuse for their slump, but it is, indeed, a major, major reason.

"We can't go offense for offense against the other team because we won't get back in those games," All-Star defenseman Kris Letang told "We have to manage the puck properly and make sure we don't turn the puck over. If you don't turn it over you don't give them any chances. Right now they're all feeding off the turnovers we give or the poor decisions we make."

Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter: @drosennhl

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