Sloppy Penguins fall flat against Florida; home win streak over

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 9:51 p.m.

It ended with a dud.

However, the Penguins are worried about a lot more than the fall of their franchise-best home winning streak.

“It's uncharacteristic for us to not care about playing hard or playing the game the right way,” defenseman Matt Niskanen said Monday after a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers at Consol Energy Center.

In first of 10 games before the NHL's three-week Olympic break, the Eastern Conference-leading Penguins looked “terrible,” said center Brandon Sutter.

Generally, Sutter said, the Penguins “are not doing what we're supposed to be doing” — and coach Dan Bylsma agreed, insisting that has been the case since returning from the Christmas break.

The Penguins are 7-2-1 over that stretch and have surrendered 32 goals.

They had allowed an average of 2.20 goals in 39 games before a run that is reminiscent of one two years ago, when captain Sidney Crosby's final return from his concussion saga was followed by a deterioration of the team defense.

The Penguins' goals-against average spiked by an average of 0.90 when Crosby came back in mid-March 2012.

That trend continued in the Stanley Cup playoffs, where they dropped four of six opening-round games to the Flyers and allowed 30 goals.

Center Evgeni Malkin and defenseman Kris Letang returned to the Penguins six games ago, and opponents have scored three or more goals in five of those contests.

The Panthers arrived at this contest 28th among 30 NHL clubs at 2.20 goals-per-game.

They scored twice in a span of 12 seconds late in the third period to seal this victory.

Only Niskanen, with his seventh goal early in the third, prevented Florida from becoming the second opponent to shut out the Penguins at home this season.

The Panthers became the fourth opponent to leave Pittsburgh victorious.

The Penguins had won 13 consecutive home games.

However, it was obvious from the start that a 14th straight victory would prove troublesome.

Scorers such as Malkin and winger James Neal buried pucks in the chest or leg pads of Panthers goalie Scott Clemmensen in the first period.

Trailing by a goal in the second, captain Sidney Crosby and winger Chris Kunitz each took minor penalties.

Also, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury fended off quality scoring chances from the opening faceoff.

The Penguins were credited with eight giveaways, but a more telling statistic for their poor defense was the 55 shot attempts allowed to Florida.

Kunitz said there was an overall breakdown of Bylsma's system, which is geared more toward creating neutral-zone turnovers and transitioning to offense than in previous seasons.

“We haven't had our best game for a few weeks now,” Kunitz said, adding that carelessly turning over the puck has become “contagious.”

“It's on us. Guys are definitely trying to do too much.”

There is not much time before the Olympic break that begins Feb. 7, and the challenge, Bylsma said, is finding a form with returning veterans that is similar to the one from a five-week stretch before Christmas.

The Penguins, playing with no fewer than four AHL replacement players in their lineup over that period of time, went 16-4-1 and averaged 2.19 goals against.

“Let's be realistic. There needs to be more there from everybody,” Niskanen said. “We all need to pay attention to details. (Monday) was just bad. Really, really bad. We'll squash this. We need to get rid of it now.”

Rob Rossi is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @RobRossi_Trib.

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