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Penguins stumble to loss at Soldier Field

| Saturday, March 1, 2014, 11:21 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
The Penguins and Blackhawks line up before their game Saturday, March 1, 2014, at Soldier Field in Chicago.

CHICAGO — Sidney Crosby caught a glimpse — albeit not a clear one given the blowing snow at Soldier Field — of the Stanley Cup champions Saturday night.

He hoped his Penguins teammates learned what he did from a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.

“Hopefully, a lot,” Crosby said.

The Blackhawks upstaged the Penguins on the grand stage of the NHL's final Stadium Series outdoor game.

Chicago placed 40 of its 58 attempted shots on net — a staggering 70 percent clip that far bested the Penguins' 58.2 percent ratio (32 of 55).

The Blackhawks won 39 of 69 faceoffs — 56.5 percent — and were credited with statistical wins in blocked shots (16-8) and takeaways (7-2).

“We weren't good enough,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. “We didn't compete at a high enough level. We weren't mentally ready to play this game.”

Conditions were a factor — for both teams, players said — but Penguins forward Craig Adams acknowledged his squad did not handle the constant wind, snow and temperatures that felt below zero.

“Obviously, it was a different game. It wasn't a regular hockey game,” Adams said.

“At times we weren't sure what to do out there, whether to try and make a play … we looked pretty hesitant.”

The Blackhawks were the healthier squad, though they lost standout two-way winger Marian Hossa early to an injury.

Still, the Penguins played again without their two top defensemen — Kris Letang (stroke) and Paul Martin (right hand) — and arguably their best defensive forward in Pascal Dupuis (right knee).

None of those players will dress anytime soon. Dupuis, for sure. Letang? Possibly not until next season.

The Penguins have played without regulars since the first game, and at one point, they went on a 16-3-1 run with a handful of AHL replacements in the lineup.

They have played only seven games with their top four defensemen.

Still, since Dupuis' injury Dec. 23, they have looked a little off.

The Penguins are 13-6-3 since Dupuis was injured, and only plus-5 in goal differential over that stretch. Their goal differential was plus-36 through 38 games before Dupuis' injury.

Forward Patrick Sharp's 29th goal late in the first period staked the Blackhawks to a 1-0 lead that their captain, Jonathan Toews, believed was pivotal.

“I honestly thought that was the game with the conditions,” Toews said. “It was so tough to get the puck to the net.”

The Penguins never really did.

Their only goal, winger James Neal's 22nd in the third period, was a deflection off the blade of Blackhawks defenseman Brent Seabrook.

Toews scored twice and finished with three points, winning on the scoreboard and the scoresheet in his first NHL battle against fellow Canadian Olympic teammate Crosby.

A week before, Crosby and Toews had each scored in Canada's gold-medal game victory over Sweden in Sochi, Russia. On Saturday, they shared words that Toews politely refused to make public.

Bylsma, though, did not hide his glowing assessment of the Blackhawks.

“The best team in the league,” Bylsma said.

The Penguins (40-16-4, 84 points) aspire to that standard, too.

They will get a chance to prove it during the remaining four games of this road trip, which includes contests with Western Conference powers Anaheim and San Jose.

They will need to protect the puck better, center Brandon Sutter said.

“The odd-man rushes, that was the difference,” Sutter said. “We gave them too many, and they didn't give us any.”

Neither did Boston in the Eastern Conference final, from which the Penguins were swept last postseason.

Bylsma and his players are tired of hearing about that series, and that they struggle against the NHL's elite clubs.

There is only one way to stop that noise, though.

“It's the old saying, but we've got to find our game,” Adams said. “People get sick of hearing that, but that's what we've got to do.”

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

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