Too early for slumping Pittsburgh Penguins to panic - or is it?

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PITTSBURGH - Their season isn't one-quarter over yet, so it's much too early to write off these Pittsburgh Penguins despite a 7-10-1 record that has dropped them into last place in the Atlantic Division.

A year ago, they also were a .500 team in mid-November, and they went on to have the second-best regular season in their history. With Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora, there's enough scoring potential to turn around any team at any time.

No, it's not time yet for the Penguins to panic. But is it time yet for them to be concerned about their place in the standings? For sure.

The Penguins, losers of four in a row and six of seven going into Thursday night's home game against the Islanders, are 1-5 during a stretch that finds them playing nine consecutive games against division teams. After the Islanders, they face the Rangers (Saturday) and Devils (Wednesday) at home before going on the road again Nov. 22 against Ottawa. So far, they are 2-6-1 in the division.

"It's easy to look at the way things have gone the last few games and be critical and negative," Crosby said.

Last season, they were only a game above .500 as late as Jan. 10 and didn't get going until they won 14 of 16 starting in mid-January. So the calendar is on their side. But what about their many problems, none of which coach Michel Therrien has yet to solve?

-Their scoring is two-sided. Outside of Crosby (27 points) and Malkin (24 points), only Sergei Gonchar (16 points) and Sykora (12 points) are in double figures.

Crosby and Malkin have played on a line together nearly all season. Therrien split them up Monday, and each scored a goal against New Jersey. Nobody else did, and the Penguins lost 3-2.

"It is unbelievable," defenceman Ryan Whitney said of how they keep losing the same way.

-Their two veteran forwards, Mark Recchi (two goals) and Gary Roberts (one goal), have only three goals between them. Colby Armstrong, who had 16 goals in slightly more than half a season in 2005-06, has all of one goal.

"They're leaders," Therrien said of Roberts and Recchi, "and we've got to stick with them."

-Where are Jordan Staal and Darryl Sydor?

Staal, who pushed Malkin for the rookie of the year award last year while scoring 29 goals as an 18-year-old, has looked lost. He has only one goal and two points in 18 games and is a minus-8. Sydor, added to give a Stanley Cup winner's presence along the blue line, has one point in 17 games and is a minus-7.

In their 18 games, the Penguins have been limited to three goals or fewer 12 times and to two or fewer seven times, and 20 of their 49 goals have been on the power play. By contrast, they were third in the league in scoring last season and averaged 3.4 goals per game.

-There's been a goalie-go-'round in net, with Therrien frequently sitting down Marc-Andre Fleury, a 40-game winner last season. Fleury never has settled in, as evidenced by his 4-7 record and 3.56 goals-against average, the second highest in the league. Only former Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg (3.59) of Atlanta has a higher average.

Recently, Therrien said Fleury is "fragile," suggesting he needs to sit sometimes until his game returns. While backup Dany Sabourin has played better than Fleury, Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo were the only goalies with more wins than Fleury last season, and he was only 22 at the time.

-Why do they keep playing seven players at a time when the rules permit only six? The Penguins have been penalized a league-high five times for too many men, once when they used six skaters for nearly half a minute. They had 17 such penalties last season. Can't someone on the bench be assigned to count heads?

-The division is better, and that is making it harder on the Penguins to win. Last year, the Penguins beat the Flyers eight times in eight games. This season, it's 2-0 Flyers. The Flyers look to be much better than the 56-point team they were last season. The question is how many of those points will come at Pittsburgh's expense.



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