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Pens struggle against the best

by Corey Masisak
PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins had one final chance to improve their record against the elite NHL teams Tuesday night. It didn't happen.

Buoyed by two goals from Alex Ovechkin and four points from Nicklas Backstrom, the Washington Capitals defeated the Penguins 6-3 at Mellon Arena. It was the fourth loss for Pittsburgh against Washington this season in as many tries.

Losing to the best of the best has been a problem for the defending Stanley Cup champs this season. Particularly troublesome is the 0-2-2 record against the Capitals, who will be the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, and their 0-6-0 record against division rival New Jersey -- which could cost them the division title.

"We have won games, and the statistics of our team in a lot of areas are pretty good," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We have not won against Washington or New Jersey, and that is where we need to bring that game and play at a higher level against the better teams and this is the challenge for this team."

For the Penguins to capture the Eastern Conference title for the third season in a row, it is fair to assume they will see either the Capitals or Devils, or both in their path.

Pittsburgh has fared well against the other member of the East's "Big Four." The Penguins are 3-1 against the Northeast Division-champion Buffalo Sabres, who currently sit third in the conference with 98 points. Buffalo is one of eight teams ahead of Pittsburgh in the NHL standings, and the Sabres are the only one the Penguins have beat this year.

Pittsburgh is 3-1-0 against Buffalo but has lost all 15 games against the other seven. That includes the aforementioned 10 losses to New Jersey and Washington plus loss to each of the top five clubs in the Western Conference.

"I don't know if there's been a common theme," captain Sidney Crosby said. "Every time has kind of been different. Third periods have hurt us the past couple games against Washington, but tonight I thought we did a lot of good things. We're missing [Chris Kunitz] and [Evgeni Malkin]. We worked hard and we battled hard, but it wasn't enough. That's the way it goes sometimes."

The big question once the postseason begins will be how much does the regular season dominance matter? Will there be any lingering psychological effects if the Penguins see either the Capitals or the Devils in the conference semifinals?

"I don't think so. Once that comes, I think it is forgotten," center Jordan Staal said. "Playoffs are always a different story. We'll be just fine. I mean, it is close. I thought we played a pretty solid game. It was a few mistakes that they are really good at capitalizing on and it was on our net. We're close, no question, but obviously we have to be better."

If the Penguins need any affirmation, they need only to look back to last season. Regular-season success against Pittsburgh has become a trend for Washington since Bruce Boudreau took over as coach, and the Capitals went 3-0-1 against the Penguins a year ago. That didn't stop the Penguins from beating their rivals from the nation's capital en route to winning the Stanley Cup for the third time in franchise history.

"That's obviously an example of it," Staal said. "Once playoffs start it is different hockey and things change. Hopefully we can meet those teams again and start to get those wins."

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