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PITTSBURGH – It wasn't a bloodbath, exactly. To be honest, if Sidney Crosby allows it wasn't even much of a fight.
Yet the Pittsburgh Penguins captain's decision to flip off his gloves and take on frequent tormentor Brandon Dubinsky on Thursday night seemed to symbolize the frustration of a team that's spent the better part of three months searching for traction.
Crosby landed at least one solid right to Dubinsky's face and earned a five-minute major for his efforts and a standing ovation from the Consol Energy crowd for his efforts. Yet the spark he was hoping to provide fizzled quickly. An hour after Crosby's skirmish the Penguins skated off 2-1 losers to Columbus, with Dubinsky providing the game-winner on a shorthanded goal that followed an all too familiar pattern. A sloppy giveaway by Blake Comeau led to wild scrambling followed by a dejected trudge to the bench.
Soaring in November, the Penguins are slumping toward March. Pittsburgh is an ordinary 16-12-7 since Dec. 1 and has dropped to fourth place in the super-tight Metropolitan Division. The power play is punchless. The offense sputtering and the results wildly inconsistent for a group that considers itself a Stanley Cup contender but currently looks like just another team.
"When you're struggling you tend to force it a little bit," Crosby said. "It's normal."
With a full quarter of the season remaining, Pittsburgh isn't panicking. The Penguins aren't exactly surging either. First-year coach Mike Johnston had no problem with one of the game's biggest stars mixing it up. And a 5-on-3 penalty kill midway through the third period was encouraging. The momentum, however, didn't result in a goal but another baffling loss to a division opponent, one that will come nowhere near the postseason.
"It should have brought out a bigger response for me," Johnston said. "That's the types of thing we should be rallying around."
And it's not happening. While injuries and a well-publicized bout with the mumps forced the Penguins to scramble for healthy bodies in December, Pittsburgh has been near 100 percent for several weeks and yet the goals that used to come so easily are nowhere to be found. The Penguins are tied for 13th in scoring and are just 10th in goal differential.
The Penguins haven't scored with the man advantage for going on a month, an 0 for 22 stretch that dates back to Jan. 30. Johnston keeps tinkering and imploring his players to put the puck on the net and yet they continue to search for the perfect shot instead of simply a productive one.
Crosby's 58 points are respectable but hardly eye-popping. His bursts seem to come in bunches. The two-time MVP has gone scoreless in 24 games, including nine in the last month. Evgeni Malkin's 54 points do not include a power play goal since the calendar flipped to January. The Penguins have added David Perron to provide some firepower alongside Crosby and traded for Maxim Lapierre for a dash of toughness. Perron has cooled after a hot start and Lapierre is still trying to find his way. Making a splash at the trade deadline seems unlikely. The Penguins currently don't have the kind of depth that would get them what they need in return.
If not for the lights out play by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, the playoff berth that has seemed like a given for the last decade would be in jeopardy. And with a daunting road-heavy schedule the rest of the way Pittsburgh is taking nothing for granted.
"We're just not finishing games the right way right now," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "There's still time to fix it. We're not far off, but each guy has to find that level in himself to be able to finish a game in the right way."
Starting the right way every time out would help. The Penguins looked every bit Detroit and Chicago's equal in two entertaining games with the league's best last week. They also looked flat and listless early against Columbus and a full step behind Washington and star Alexander Ovechkin in a 3-1 loss on Tuesday.
If there's a sense of anxiousness in the air, maybe it's because Pittsburgh is typically on cruise control this time of year. The Penguins have finished no worse than second in their division since 2007. Emerging in the upper half of a logjam that includes the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers and the Capitals will be difficult.
"When you've lost a couple games and not play right, everyone is nervous," Malkin said. "It's not bad but it's not good. We know we can come back. I believe this team is good guys, good players, if we just support each other and play better."