Penguins struck by Lightning

| Monday, Feb. 26, 2007

TAMPA, Fla. - Considering they have earned points in 17 of 19 games and hold the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, it would simply be inaccurate to suggest these Penguins are not contenders to make some noise in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Then again, in a 5-1 loss to the Lightning Sunday at St. Pete Times Forum, the Penguins showed that, despite how far they have come the past two months, they still have a long way to go just to make the playoffs.

Coach Michel Therrien was not shy about letting his club know as much, either.

"It was our worst game of the year," Therrien said. "We were not prepared to play. I'm very disappointed, at this time of year, to have a performance like that.

"I thought we were mature enough to realize the importance of this game."

With 21 games remaining, the Penguins trail first-place New Jersey by nine points in the Atlantic Division. More pressing, it holds only a five-point lead on ninth-place Montreal in the conference.

The Penguins will play New Jersey on Tuesday at Mellon Arena -- a game veteran right wing Mark Recchi called "huge."

"All these games are huge," Recchi said. "We can't take a game off because everybody else keeps winning. We have to keep winning or we're going to be on the outside looking in. That's just the way this race is going."

Tampa has won 12 consecutive games against the Penguins, who have triumphed just once here since the 1999-2000 season.

The Lighting completed a four-game sweep of the Penguins with an emphatic early assault yesterday -- scoring twice before four minutes had passed and peppering goaltender Jocelyn Thibault with 14 shots in the opening period. Conversely, the Penguins managed just four shots.

Tampa right wing Martin St. Louis' 38th goal and defenseman Paul Ranger's fourth both were the result of clean rebounds allowed by Thibault.

St. Louis provided the Lightning a 1-0 lead at 2:17 after Thibault failed to secure a shot from the point by defenseman Dan Boyle on a power play. Ranger followed suit less than two minutes later after Thibault could not control a blast from center Eric Perrin.

The goal by St. Louis proved particularly telling as Tampa improved to 31-9-2 when it has scored with the man-advantage. The Penguins entered the game owning the league's worst road penalty-killing unit at below 74 percent.

"We lost it in the first period," defenseman Mark Eaton said. "It was by far our worst period of the year."

Center Brad Richards set up the shots by Boyle and Perrin that led to those rebound goals in the first. At 4:58 of the second, Richards was the primary player responsible for setting up defenseman Filip Kuba's 10th goal -- one that chased Thibault, who allowed three goals on only 15 shots.

Thibault had made a second consecutive start in favor of Marc-Andre Fleury, who was essentially benched by coach Michel Therrien due to poor performances in his previous five games.

After replacing Thibault yesterday, Fleury stopped seven of nine shots. He allowed third-period goals to Richards and center Vincent Lecavalier.

Therrien said he pulled Thibault merely in an attempt to change momentum.

The Penguins pulled within 3-1 at 8:26 of the second when, working with a two-man advantage, defenseman Sergei Gonchar fired a puck through the legs of Tampa goaltender Johan Holmqvist. It was Gonchar's 10th goal of the season.

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