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Penguins need to solve back-to-back shortcomings

Pittsburgh concerned by 0-4-0 record this season after playing day before

by Tim Campbell @TimNHL / Staff Writer

EDMONTON -- The defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins are by no means in dire straits with a 7-5-1 record this season, but three lopsided losses in the second of back-to-back games have them more than a little perplexed.

"They're obviously ones you don't want to make a habit of, but we've said that after each one, so we've got to find a way to change it," captain Sidney Crosby said after practice Tuesday. "You try to sit back and learn from those, but we haven't found a way to do that yet. We've got a lot of them, so we have to figure it out."

Their losses in the second of back-to-back games included a 10-1 loss at the Chicago Blackhawks on Oct. 5, a 5-4 loss at the Tampa Bay Lightning on Oct. 12, a 7-1 loss at the Lightning on Oct. 21 and a 7-1 loss at the Winnipeg Jets on Sunday.

The Penguins have 15 sets of back-to-back games remaining, including one this week: They visit the Edmonton Oilers at Rogers Place on Wednesday (8:30 p.m. ET, SN1, TVA Sports, ATTSN-PT, NHL.TV), and then play the Calgary Flames at Scotiabank Saddledome on Thursday.

Video: PIT@WPG: Malkin tips feed through five-hole for PPG

Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said he's not treating their one-sided losses simply as bad games to forget.

"There are going to be nights over the course of an 82-game schedule where it doesn't go your way, but I think this early in the season at this point, our team has had a few too many of them," Sullivan said. "We give our opponents credit; we're playing against good teams. But it's not so much what our opponents are doing to us, it's more what we're doing to ourselves.

"That's unacceptable. If we're going to get where we want to go, we're going to have to become a team that doesn't beat itself."

The self-inflicted pain has come early in those games, something Crosby said has made matters doubly difficult.

"We've put ourselves behind early by a bunch," he said. "It's not a great position to be in on back-to-back nights. Those games, you have to manage them a little better and give yourself a better chance. When you're starting off and it's 3-0 in the first five-to-seven minutes, it's pretty hard to climb out of that."

It's fair to wonder if the Penguins have suffered from fatigue early this season. In winning the Stanley Cup in 2016 and 2017, they played 213 games the previous two seasons.

"I don't believe in the hangover," Sullivan said. "For me, that's all just nonsense. It's a hockey game. We've got to be ready to play."

Defenseman Olli Maatta also dismissed that thought.

Video: NSH@PIT: Maatta blisters Crosby's feed top shelf

"I don't think it should play into it," Maatta said. "I think everybody had a good summer and it's a new season. It doesn't matter what you did in the two years past. Everybody starts from zeroes and you have to go and do it again."

Defenseman Brian Dumoulin said there are no excuses for those bad October losses, but said the 213 games they played cannot be ignored. 

"A lot of these people in this locker room are familiar with what we did last year and the amount of hockey that we played," Dumoulin said. "I don't think it's any kind of excuse, but I think we as a team know … you're not going to have it every night, but on those nights where you're not finding it, you just need to simplify it a little more."

Pittsburgh is 7-1-1 this season with at least a day between games. Crosby hinted the Penguins must be mentally stronger when they're not better rested.

"When you're playing back-to-backs it's a little bit harder brand, it's more difficult, you're not feeling quite as fresh," he said. "Those little things become magnified. It's not as easy to finish your hits and make those hard plays. When you're stuck out there for long shifts, you feel it a little more. All those things you take for granted you really have to have to emphasize and be better at on back-to-back nights, and we haven't done that."

Video: PIT@FLA: Crosby scores power-play goal on redirection

The intangibles aside, the Penguins need to fix an uncharacteristic weakness. They have scored 17 goals at 5-on-5 in 13 games, and have three in their past six games.

"We're not playing right," Penguins center Evgeni Malkin said. "We're playing like it's an easy game right now. We think we can score five or six goals, but that's not right. We need to be better without the puck. Nobody's giving us easy pucks right now. We need to be stronger, and in our [defensive] zone play right."

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