Penguins fall flat in shutout loss to Stars

| Tuesday, Jan. 28, 2014, 2:54 p.m.

DALLAS – Sidney Crosby simplified the Penguins' problem on Saturday night.

“We just didn't execute well,” Crosby said after a 3-0 loss to the Dallas Stars at American Airlines Center. “There's no real excuse for it. We just didn't do it.”

What the Penguins did do twice in a span of six days is look lousy against an inferior opponent. A 5-1 home loss to Florida on Monday night seemed like a bottoming out after about a month of declining play.

Wins against Montreal, a likely playoff club, and at the New York Islanders, who challenged the Penguins in the last postseason, appeared to signal the start of a return to consistency shown most of the season's opening three months.

“Two good wins and two bad losses, and the bad losses were the same things,” center Brandon Sutter said.

He cited turnovers, and the Penguins were credited with nine against Dallas — three by center Evgeni Malkin.

Also evident in the Penguins' performance against Dallas: lost races to and battles for pucks; an inability to attack or defend the goal crease; and scant signs of attention to detail for plans passed along by coaches.

The Penguins attempted only 54 shots, 13 below their season average, and they needed 30 in the final period, at which they arrived down, 3-0, to hit that total.

They lost 54 percent of faceoffs, but they had dropped 28 of 43 draws through the two periods over which this game was essentially decided.

The Penguins' top-ranked penalty kill allowed two goals, and their No. 1 power play failed on two paltry opportunities.

Coach Dan Bylsma joined players in lauding the Penguins' opening 10 minutes against Dallas, and their final 20 were not terrible.

That left another 30, and over those the Penguins played a lot like they did in that loss to Florida, players said.

Sutter was among a couple of players to denounce a possible lack of focus because the Penguins' big lead in their division (17 points) and the Eastern Conference (seven points).

“We've still got 30 games left until the playoffs, and we're building toward that,” Sutter said.

Building is one way to put it.

Over the past month, the Penguins have weakened what seemed a sound foundation of opportunistic offense and responsible defense. They are 9-5-1 since winger Pascal Dupuis was lost, likely for the season, with a torn ACL on Dec. 23. Opponents have scored at least three goals in 10 of those games, compared to 14 times in 38 prior contests.

The Penguins are playing to the level of their competition more than anybody with the team wishes to acknowledge.

The Stars would be challenging for second place in the Penguins-led Metropolitan Division, but they were 10th of 14 teams in the Western Conference. The Panthers are one of only five teams without a realistic playoff shot.

Since losing Dupuis last month, the Penguins have needed overtime to win at Carolina; taken only a point from the lottery-bound Oilers at Edmonton; scored once in a regulation loss at New Jersey; and surrendered nine goals combined in wins against Winnipeg and York Islanders.

There is a chance that none of those teams will qualify for the playoffs.

The Penguins (36-14-2, 74 points) will reach their eighth straight postseason, but four have passed since consecutive Stanley Cup Final appearances, and inconsistent hockey does not play in May and June.

“There's more to the game than just getting outworked,” Crosby said, referring specifically to this loss.

“We got outworked. We didn't execute on our chances. They carried the play, especially those first two periods.”

That happens to every club over the course of an 82-game hockey season.

It just happened to the Penguins twice in less than a week.

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