Penguins staying upbeat as funk threatens postseason hopes

PITTSBURGH (AP) Evgeni Malkin wasn't exactly making a guarantee as much as he was trying to provide his sagging team with a needed dose of swagger.

Don't let the messy last month fool you. The 2012 NHL MVP believes the fading Pittsburgh Penguins are headed to the postseason. Just like they have every spring since the Russian forward joined Sidney Crosby in turning the franchise around nearly nine years ago.

''I know we play playoffs,'' Malkin said Thursday.

Even with an overextended defense missing injured star Kris Letang and veteran Christian Ehrhoff. Even with an ugly 3-9-2 stretch over the last month that has all the earmarks of an ugly collapse. Even with the surging Ottawa Senators growing ever larger in the rearview mirror.

Last Malkin checked, everybody starts the playoffs 0-0. What better way to wipe out the unsavory aftertaste of an uneven and sometimes bizarre season than packaging wins over the New York Islanders on Friday and Buffalo Sabres on Saturday to head into the playoffs on a high?

''I've played here a long time,'' Malkin said. ''It's the first time (I've gone through this), but we need to work and just win the next two games.''

Maybe, but at this point winning one is hard enough. The Penguins have dropped four straight and missed a chance to ease any anxiety when they let a 3-0 lead evaporate in an overtime loss to the Senators on Tuesday night.

It marked the fourth time in the last two weeks Pittsburgh couldn't clamp down after going up by at least two goals. Not the best way to make a case for the postseason.

''We've put ourselves in situations where the other team is able to dig their way back into games far too often,'' defenseman Ben Lovejoy said. ''We need to find a way to never let that happen again.''

Never might be asking a little too much. At this point, Lovejoy would settle for it not happening over the weekend.

''We feel we haven't played our best hockey, that's no secret,'' Lovejoy said. ''We're comfortable we can come out and beat a team we've been battling with.''

One that has created its own sense of unease.

New York is 3-5-2 over its last 10 games, including a gut-punch 5-4 loss to Philadelphia on Tuesday that included a spirited rally from a three-goal deficit before losing on a knuckling 50-foot wrist shot from Brayden Schenn with 2.1 seconds to go.

''Obviously it's a frustrating loss so at this time of year you have to have a short term memory,'' Islanders coach Jack Capuano said. ''You have to move on, and you have to get ready for the next one.''

Fighting to extend the season is a way of life for New York, which hasn't won a playoff series in more than 20 years. The standards are very different in Pittsburgh, which has missed the postseason just five times in the last quarter century.

Yet after sprinting out to a quick start under first-year coach Mike Johnston, they've been unable to gain traction while dealing with everything from the mumps to a revolving door to a seemingly constantly packed training room.

It doesn't appear the crowd will thin anytime soon. Letang is out indefinitely with a concussion and Ehrhoff isn't practicing due to an upper-body issue. Rookie Derrick Pouliot is day to day with his own upper-body injury. The healthy regulars that remain along the blueline are now logging leg-sapping minutes. Lovejoy, Paul Martin and Rob Scuderi all played more than a third of the loss to Ottawa. All three are on the other side of 30, though as Lovejoy points out ''nobody comes off the ice saying `I wish I could have played a lot less.'''

Maybe, but the defense certainly looked like it was slogging through slush late against the Senators, who outshot Pittsburgh 21-3 over the 22:43 of play.

Martin declined to lay blame at tired legs and more on tired minds. Knowing what to fix is easy. Doing it is another matter.

''It's commitment to certain guys playing the right way,'' Martini said, ''not taking shifts off or cheating or doing things that help other teams get momentum.''

Something that's happened all too often recently. While Johnston's job doesn't appear to be in any imminent danger, Crosby is well aware of the stakes.

''Either we're going to play really well and earn our way into the playoffs and if we do we'll deserve it and if we don't, we won't,'' Crosby said. ''It's pretty clear cut.''

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