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Penguins searching for answers

by Dan Rosen
It's the middle of January with the All-Star break quickly approaching, yet Pittsburgh Penguins center Jordan Staal is talking about the playoffs.

No, wait, strike that.

The third-year center, wealthy now thanks to a four-year contract extension he signed this week, is actually talking about a playoff mentality. If there is a team that needs to have one these days, it's your defending Eastern Conference champions.

"Every little play counts, especially with the way we're going now," Staal told "We have to play playoff hockey to get out of this slump."

The Penguins are struggling to get out of their own way these days and it's not going to get any easier. They're still not sure of the health of star center Sidney Crosby, who suffered a lower-body injury Wednesday night, but the Anaheim Ducks and New York Rangers don't care about that.

The Ducks are at Mellon Arena on Friday night and the Rangers face off against the Penguins Sunday on U.S. national TV (NBC, 12:30 p.m. ET). Pittsburgh, losers of eight of its last 10 games, has to come away with points or face the prospect of entering the All-Star break on the outside of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

"Everyone cares, which is good. And, nobody is feeling sorry for themselves," Crosby told "You don't try to do too much, but maybe guys do feel it more around the net and guys aren't as confident with the puck. That's natural, but winning solves a lot of that. If your work ethic is right then you can have confidence that you'll get out of it. Our work ethic has been there."

Which only makes Pittsburgh's struggles all the more puzzling.

To a man, the Penguins do not know what has happened to their confidence since going 9-2-2 in November, but Crosby admitted that "team-wise" it is sorely lacking right now.

"It's something that everybody would like to know on this team -- exactly, exactly what we need to change or do to win some games," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury told "I don't know. It's tough to put a finger on something."

What's worse is there is no quick fix coming.

Defenseman Sergei Gonchar, who would be quarterbacking the power play if not for a shoulder injury that has kept him out all season, is not scheduled to return until March. General Manager Ray Shero also doesn't have much wiggle room under the salary cap, so striking a Marian Hossa-type deal at the trade deadline will be trickier.

"When we will get out of it, the positive thing is that's going to help us to become a better team," coach Michel Therrien said. "Look at the Flyers last year. They went into a slump close to the end, but finished the season really well and got a great run in the playoffs. That helped them to become a good hockey team and that will be the same thing with us."

The Penguins thought they were on the verge of getting out of it Tuesday night in Philadelphia, where they put together their most complete performance in about a month to beat the Flyers, 4-2.

Crosby, who had eight points and a minus-6 rating in the previous eight games, had two assists and was highly engaged. The League's leading scorer, Evgeni Malkin, who had just six points and a minus-10 rating in the previous eight games, scored a goal.

Staal, Tyler Kennedy and Matt Cooke also scored as the Penguins came back from an early deficit after Mike Knuble's fluke goal thanks to a weird bounce off Fleury's stick as he tried to play the puck behind the goal.

"The great thing about (the Philly game) was everyone was involved," Crosby said. "Every line did some great things. Marc played well. The 'D' played well. We had everyone going and that was good to see."

Twenty-four hours later, Pittsburgh was picking up the pieces from a devastating 6-3 loss to the Washington Capitals, who won the third period, 4-1.

The concern afterward was for both the Pens' pride and three injured players.

Crosby was hit low along the boards by David Steckel late in the game and limped off the ice gingerly. He said afterward he didn't think the injury was too bad.

Rob Scuderi, the Pens' top penalty-killing defenseman, took a Mike Green slap shot to the face in the first period and did not return. Max Talbot, another key penalty killer, left in the third period with an upper-body injury.

They all did not participate in the Pens' optional practice Thursday and their status remains in question for tonight's game against Anaheim.

"When we got to the third period, they brought their game to that extra level and we were not there to keep up to that level after missing some players during the game," Therrien said. "That was tough. … Our bench was really short."

The Penguins, though, are not into making excuses. They are into finding answers, which hasn't been easy to do lately.

Since Christmas, their power play, even with the return of defenseman Ryan Whitney to join Crosby and Malkin, has gone just 4-for-49 while giving up three shorthanded goals. Their penalty kill has allowed 12 goals in the same span of time.

Pittsburgh gave up six goals to Florida and five each to Nashville and Colorado, three teams that also entered Thursday also out of playoff contention.

"In November we played some games that probably weren't our best but we found ways to win by getting a power-play goal, a late goal, or we won a game in overtime," Crosby said. "When you're losing there is only a little thing that has to be off. We have had games where we scored three goals at even strength but haven't been able to do anything on the power play and maybe struggled on the penalty kill.

"We need to put everything together," he continued. "When you're losing, every little mistake you make is in your net. It's not like you get bailed out a lot and get bounces. You have to work to earn your bounces and eventually they will come."

The Penguins know they better start coming soon because it's getting late and the expectations on them have not changed. If they don't make the playoffs with Crosby and Malkin, the two top scorers in the League, it will be considered a disaster.

They're capable of averting it, but they need to find that playoff mentality.

"From here on in," winger Matt Cooke told, "every game is the biggest game of the year."

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