|Slumping Pens host first-place Lightning|
PITTSBURGH -- Past the quarter-pole and closing in on the one-third point of the season, the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins find themselves doing some soul-searching.
They are reaching a point where they can't ignore some recurring problems.
Pittsburgh (11-10-3) has lost three games in a row for the first time since January and is 2-4-1 in its past seven going into a game against the top team in the East, the Tampa Bay Lightning (16-4-2), Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena.
The Penguins have lost two straight at home after starting the season 6-0-1 there.
"We know that we're not at our best right now, but we also know that we're close," Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray said. "Everybody's working hard. Everybody's sticking together and supporting each other. ... We're going through some adversity right now. If we handle ourselves correctly, we'll be better for it in the long run."
There have been stretches where scoring, particularly at even strength, has been elusive despite a lineup full of firepower. Overall defensive play and penalty killing have also been issues.
At times, such as Friday afternoon in a 4-3 loss at Boston, the Penguins have come out flat. In that game, they overcame two, two-goal deficits, had a strong third period and got a goal from team captain Sidney Crosby for just the second time in 16 games, but it wasn't enough.
"When you go through some adversity, guys obviously want to have success. You can squeeze your stick a little bit, and sometimes that's all it takes," Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. "For me, all the more reason that we've just got to focus on the details and make sure that there's an urgency to our game and a competitive spirit to our game. That, for me, is the foundation of turning this thing in the right direction."
Pittsburgh has had some costly bad bounces, but doesn't want to assign all the blame there.
"Maybe a bit, but you've got to work for your bounces, too, and when it's going like this you've got to find a way to break through that," Crosby said. "You need to come up with a big win and kind of break that trend."
A victory over Tampa Bay would seem to qualify. Pittsburgh is 0-2 against the Lightning, with both games in Tampa -- a 5-4 loss and a 7-1 pounding that was one of three blowout losses for the Penguins this season.
The Lightning, like the Penguins, were critical of their start Friday. They fell at Washington 3-1.
"That's three games in a row we've had a tough first period," team captain Steven Stamkos said. "We've got to adjust that."
From the outside that loss looked more like a bump in a road than the sort of rut Pittsburgh is in. Tampa Bay had won six in a row on the road before Friday and is 6-2-1 in November.
That didn't stop the Lightning from showing some concern for its game lately.
"I think we think we're a little bit better than we are," coach Jon Cooper said. "There's a reason we have the record we have -- we've worked to get there -- and I don't know if we're putting in that same kind of effort and urgency and determination that got us off to the start that we had."
Defenseman Anton Stralman agreed, and sounded like someone who doesn't want things for the Lightning to escalate into the kind of stretch the Penguins are in.
"It's about, I think, realizing where we are and not just think it's going to happen for us," he said. "There's a lot of hard work that goes into it. It's a mentality, I think."