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Penguins pull no punches against teams pumped to play Sid the Kid @NHLdotcom

Maybe you can call them the Pittsburgh Punchers.

Whether it's because of their young stars, their high profile, key divisional matchups, or lopsided scores, the Penguins have brought out and delivered some anger jabs recently.

"When I was younger and I played against Mario Lemieux or when I played against Wayne Gretzky I was always more excited because I was playing against the best players," Penguins forward Petr Sykora said. "I think that's how they feel playing against Sidney Crosby. I don't know if that might be it or if it may not."

Well, if opponents are excited, they are also edgy against the Penguins. Just in recent days, Pittsburgh had a third-period Philly slugfest with the Flyers in a blowout loss, got involved in Chris Simon's latest act of violence, and even saw Crosby drop the gloves to fight for the first time in his NHL career.

"We have Georges Laraque in our lineup, and when you have Georges Laraque in your lineup, things tend to be quieter," 41-year-old forward Gary Roberts said. "There's not too many guys who are going to take Georges on."

The game against the Flyers can sort of be brushed off since the score was lopsided and the Penguins gave in to frustrations against a big rival.

Jarkko Ruutu plays with an edge, and is known to be a hard-hitter. There didn't seem to be anything done on his part to cause Simon to slew foot him down to the ice and then stomp on his ankle with his skate blade during a win over the New York Islanders.

"They were both divisional games for us," forward Colby Armstrong said. "If you look at the standings, everyone is pretty tight. These are big games, emotions are high, and you get fired up to play each other."

And then there is the Crosby-Evgeni Malkin factor.

Every Penguins game has a certain bit of hype built in because of Crosby, the reigning NHL MVP and scoring champion, and fellow upstart youngster Malkin, who had 40 points through 36 games - just eight fewer than Crosby.

"We have a lot of attention to our team, so I think a lot of teams are up to play us. That's normal," said Crosby, who took on Boston defenseman Andrew Ference in his first fight. "We have a lot of young players that bring a lot of attention so I think teams are ready when we play them.

"You'll have to ask them. I don't play against us. I really don't know."


DULL LIGHTNING: The Tampa Bay Lightning have lost their spark. And this latest slide could be the worst one yet.

A 5-2 home loss to Montreal on Thursday dropped them to 15-20-3, the first time Tampa Bay fell to five under .500 since the end of 2001-02 season. The Lightning have already had two six-game skids this season, both included an overtime defeat, and entered this weekend having lost seven of nine.

Their 33 points were tied with Washington for the fewest in the Eastern Conference, in which only three teams had losing records.

"It's not like we're going out there not caring and quit, but when things are this bad, sometimes that's the way it looks," forward Brad Richards said. "You can't get out of your own way sometimes. There's not one thing. We could sit here for a half-hour and go over things that we're doing wrong."

The offense is there as only three teams in the East had more goals than their 110 through 38 games. The defense hasn't been. Tampa Bay yielded 126 goals, one fewer than Atlanta, which has been scored upon the most in the conference.

"You're trying to go after it, and it kind of backfires a little bit," forward Martin St. Louis said. "It seems there's not much flow in our game right now. We've just got to bounce back and bounce back quick. We've done it in the past."

If they take too long, a shot at the playoffs could be gone in a hurry.

"I don't what to go there yet, but something's got to be done," St. Louis said. "We have to turn it around. We're going to work hard and plug away."


MAKING IT CLICK: It seemed perfect back on that hot summer day in July.

The New York Rangers found a quality center to play with Jaromir Jagr, two of them, actually.

At first, the thought was that Chris Drury would line up next to the captain, but not too long after the two big free agents signed on, Scott Gomez seemed to be a more natural fit because of his strong playmaking abilities.

For some reason, or many, it didn't work early this season. Rangers coach Tom Renney tried it, but then split the line up. Brandon Dubinsky found comfort there for a while, and Jagr enjoyed playing with the rookie.

Soon after, it was time to shake things up again. Enter Gomez for a second try, and now there are signs that it might work out, after all.

"Sometimes the coach has got to make changes," Gomez said. "Sometimes you've got to mix things up, but you're in the NHL. It doesn't matter who you play with.

"I think that was part of the problem in the beginning, just thinking too much."

Gomez worked hard to fit in as he made the tough move from the rival New Jersey Devils to the Rangers, and playing alongside Jagr might have caused him to defer too much to the resident superstar.

Now he is merely trying to play his fast, creative style and incorporate Jagr's finishing skills.

Through their first five games as linemates, Gomez had three goals and five assists, while Jagr posted two goals and six assists. Both had their first two-goal games of the season in Rangers victories during that span.

"He makes the game easier," Jagr said. "You don't get tired with him that much because he's got the puck most of the time."

Back in the 2006 playoffs, Jagr got so frustrated playing against Gomez, that it cost him dearly.

In the closing moments of the first-round series opener, with the outcome no longer in question, Jagr took a misguided swing at Gomez. He ended up with a separated shoulder that required surgery, and didn't fully heal until well into last season.

Jagr learned a valuable lesson.

"Sneakiness, that's the right word for him," Jagr said. "You can't hit him. Don't even try. I tried once and spent five months in the hospital.

"That's his advantage. I don't how he does it. It's tough to describe. Just sneaky. You can't hit him. You can't. It's impossible."


MONTREAL MISSTEPS: Last season the Montreal Canadiens went 26-12-3 at home, but fell just short of a playoff spot because of their poor 16-22-3 road mark.

They have fixed that problem as they near the halfway point this season, but now they're slipping at home.

"Maybe we feel the pressure when we play at home," second-year coach Guy Carbonneau said. "On the road we seem to keep things simple. Our focus and our concentration is better."

The Canadiens have jumped out to a 12-6-2 road record, compared to 6-7-4 north of the border on home ice.

Montreal got off to a 2-1-1 start to a season-high, six-game road trip that was set to conclude with stops at Florida and New York before the Canadiens return home to the Bell Centre on Thursday to face Tampa Bay. They haven't played in front of their fans since a loss to Florida on Dec. 18.

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