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Defense falters in Pens' loss to Ottawa

| Sunday, March 25, 2012

OTTAWA -- Center Jason Spezza's breakaway goal in the third period not only put an exclamation point on the Penguins' 8-4 loss, but also told the story.

The Penguins did not receive a strong performance from goaltender Brad Thiessen, but he enjoyed little help from his defense.

Ottawa scored twice on breakaways and enjoyed numerous odd-man rushes against a Penguins team that hasn't been thrilled with its defensive work for at least a week. The shaky defensive work finally caught up to them in Ottawa.

"They were cheating all over the ice," left wing Matt Cooke said of Ottawa's offensive approach, "and for whatever reason, we didn't figure it out."

There was nothing wrong with the Penguins' offense -- Cooke scored two goals for the fifth time this season and has a career-high 19 tallies, while Sidney Crosby scored for the first time in 13 games and added a beautiful assist -- but their defensive effort was troubling.

Crosby had finally scored a goal, and it was a huge one, pulling the Penguins within a goal in the third period with 8:17 remaining.

It took less than two minutes, however, for the Penguins to lose track of Spezza and, ultimately, the game.

"We came out sleeping in the second period," right wing Craig Adams said. "Their defensemen were jumping in off the point. We weren't aware enough. It caused us some problems."

The Penguins fully acknowledged that their performance didn't warrant a victory. However, in what has become a theme during the second half of the season, they were furious with the officiating following the contest.

Cooke, in particular, was not pleased. He was called for a goaltender interference penalty that arguably turned the game's tide at the 5:45 mark of the second period. At the time, the game was tied, 2-2. Ottawa goalie Ben Bishop, who later left with an injury, appeared to take a dive when Cooke was in his neighborhood.

"I didn't touch him," Cooke said. "It's embarrassing. The referee sees the goalie go down like that, looks to see who it is. He didn't even see the play happen and calls a penalty. Cost us a goal. You can't guess."

Cooke wasn't finished.

He was recently nominated for the Masterton Award, which goes to the NHL player who shows perseverance and sportsmanship. Still, Cooke clearly believes he is a marked man by NHL officials.

"They're staring at penalties that they're not calling intentionally," Cooke said. "It's frustrating."

So, too, was the entire evening for the Penguins.

They dropped only their second game in 15 outings, but this was a costly setback. The New York Rangers defeated the Maple Leafs, 4-3, in a shootout just moments after the Penguins were defeated, giving them a three-point cushion for first place in the Eastern Conference. The Penguins, who have a game in hand on the Rangers, return to action tonight at Consol Energy Center against the New Jersey Devils.

They know they'll need to display a better performance defensively.

Spezza's breakaway goal came only 1:33 after Crosby had pulled the Penguins within a goal. Crosby felt bad for Penguins' goalie Brad Thiessen, who permitted all eight goals.

"We didn't give him much help," Crosby said. "We made some big mistakes."

The Penguins can't afford many more mistakes if they are to catch the Rangers. They have been outscored by Ottawa, 19-9, in their past three battles. Ottawa found itself with wide-open players throughout the night.

"We weren't anywhere near where we need to be," Cooke said. "That's the bottom line."

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