Eric Staal has his way with Pens in Hurricanes' 4-1 win

| Thursday, Feb. 28, 2013, 9:51 p.m.

RALEIGH, N.C. - Marc-Andre Fleury guarded the net.

He was the only Penguin to take that approach in a 4-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes at PNC Arena on Thursday night.

Led by captain Eric Staal, who was a menace down low throughout, the Hurricanes outworked and outexecuted the Penguins near the most important spot on the ice.

"I thought the goalie played one of his best games of the year," defenseman Brooks Orpik said of Fleury, who had gone nine starts without surrendering more than three goals.

No Penguins players - not Orpik, fellow defenseman Matt Niskanen, captain Sidney Crosby or former Hurricane Brandon Sutter - pointed to poor play by Fleury as the reason for this loss.

Quite the opposite actually, as the Penguins' defensive-zone coverage was so sickening that Orpik joked - with a straight face - that "maybe the 20 guys in here don't like Voky and Flower."

"I think they're pretty good guys," Orpik said of Tomas Vokoun and Fleury, the Penguins' goaltending tandem that was challenged with stopping 64 shots over two consecutive regulation losses.

Orpik declined to say if the Penguins, as currently constructed, are built to defend better.

"That's for someone else (to answer), not me," Orpik said.

Crosby said the Penguins are "a good team ... when we work hard as a group."

"It's attitude on the ice as far as our desperation level," Crosby said. "Every team that we play against knows what to expect from us, and they're willing to compete. We've basically been outworked the last two games, and there's no excuse for that."

The Penguins (13-8-0, 26 points) are 5-5-0 since a five-game winning streak.

They fell one short of allowing at least 30 shots for a fifth time in six games.

They have allowed four or more goals in three of five games and at least three in six of 10 games.

This loss marked the first of three consecutive games without MVP center Evgeni Malkin that the Penguins have looked lackluster offensively without their two-time scoring champion. They had averaged 4.5 goals in his absence.

Malkin has skated without contact in Pittsburgh for two straight days, but as he progresses, another loss looms.

Defenseman Paul Martin, who did not practice Wednesday, did not finish the game against Carolina because of a lower-body injury, coach Dan Bylsma said.

Martin played more than 18 minutes against the Hurricanes, and he was a minus-3. However, his four goals tops the defense corps, and his 15 points are tied with Kris Letang for that unit's team-best total.

Defensemen have produced points (48) this season.

Neither they nor forwards are doing enough to take away forwards' time and space away from the puck, and against the Hurricanes nobody wearing a Skating Penguin crest was a friend to Fleury.

Staal's tying goal late in the first period and the two markers scored by Jeff Skinner and Jiri Tlusty early in the second were essentially freebies, and Tlusty's late second-period marker was no fault of Fleury's either.

"We really left our goaltender out to dry," Bylsma said. "It's a lack of our execution of our defensive zone, our being strong around the net, and awareness of the situation."

The Penguins face conference-leading Montreal on Saturday night, and Orpik suggested they must prevent their recent ways from becoming a real situation for a Stanley Cup favorite.

"The sign of a good team, or a good player, is if you make a mistake once you don't make that mistake again," he said.

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