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Penguins' Fleury speaks his mind

As the 2008 Stanley Cup playoffs stretched into the final, Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was often asked to recall his rookie season, when he appeared in 21 games and earned four of the club's 23 victories.

Certainly, Fleury never expected this season — one that began with the upstart Penguins talking optimistically about taking that so-called next step — to remind him of that miserable 2003-04 campaign, which produced an NHL-low 58 points.

Those depressing memories were on Fleury's mind Saturday night after the Penguins dropped a 3-2 decision at home to the Montreal Canadiens, leaving them 7-9-1 over the past 17 games and seventh in the Eastern Conference with 42 points as of Sunday.

"The past month has been pretty tough," Fleury said after stopping 16 of 19 shots against Montreal. "We've usually been pretty constant (with effort). That's what got us to the Stanley Cup final. That's what we need to do every game.

"We have to start with the group of guys we have. We have to go out and play hard."

Focus on that last sentence; many players did after the loss to Montreal, the Penguins' fourth in the past five games at Mellon Arena.

"We owed it to our fans," center Jordan Staal said of the Penguins' noticeably energized performance. "The last two games we didn't show up at all."

That would seem to be the problem facing coach Michel Therrien's club. Therrien spoke of his players' work ethic in unfavorable terms after homes losses to Vancouver (Nov. 22), Buffalo (Dec. 8), Toronto (Dec. 20) and a disappointing defeat Tuesday when underachieving Tampa Bay won, 2-0.

Of those opponents, only Vancouver began yesterday above .500. The Penguins are only 3-4-2 against teams at-or-above .500 since a come-from-behind win Nov. 11 at reigning Cup champion Detroit.

They are 10-9-1 since that 7-6 victory over the Red Wings. Four of those victories were against Atlanta (two) and the New York Islanders (two), teams that began yesterday 14th and 15th,respectively, in the East. Another came at Carolina on Dec. 4, the Hurricanes' first game under new coach Paul Maurice.

The Penguins have lost to five teams that began yesterday under .500 in their past 15 games.

That is fairly unacceptable trend for a team that came within two wins of a championship last season and this year is paced by two centers, Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby, who have spent much of the past two months 1-2 in the individual scoring standings.

"You're right to say that," Crosby said Saturday, adding that the Penguins "don't want to waste games."

They're also are seemingly weakened by fatigue. Their offseason was essentially six weeks, and they've needed to recall 10 players from the AHL over the past two months due to an injury bug that started in August when recently returned defenseman Ryan Whitney underwent left foot surgery.

The Penguins' fourth line Saturday consisted of forwards Paul Bissonnette, Dustin Jeffrey and Tim Wallace — a trio that has appeared in 18 NHL games.

Perhaps a reason Therrien gave his club an off day yesterday was to lessen any chance of more injuries.

Then again, as defenseman Mark Eaton noted Saturday, "injuries happen" and "they've not been an excuse" for the Penguins before.

The Penguins actually have a better record (19-13-4) through 36 games than they did last season (18-16-2).

"Every team goes through this," forward Petr Sykora said. "Every team that goes a long way in the playoffs at some point in the next season feels it, loses that step for a while.

"The best way to get out of it is to play smart and keep working hard. Eventually it will turn around. We have a great hockey club here. I've got no worries."

17 and under

Looking for a reason why the defending Eastern Conference champion Penguins were just seventh with 42 points as of Sunday• Since opening November with a 7-0-1 stretch, the Penguins are 7-9-1. A statistical breakdown of their recent woe:

Home: 2-5-0

Away: 5-4-1

1-goal games: 2-4-1

Losses by at least 3 goals: 3

Record against .500-or-better teams: 2-4-1

Goals for: 52

Goals against: 53

Power play: 17.6 percent (13-for-74)

Penalty kill: 78.6 percent (55-of-70)

Source: NHL.com

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