Florida a cold spot for Penguins

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When the Penguins walk off their plane near Fort Lauderdale late this afternoon, the temperature should be around the mid-70s, give or take a few degrees.

The breezes should be soft and warm and, if the team arrives early enough, the sky blue and the sunshine plentiful.

There are a lot of ways to describe the conditions they can expect. "Perfect hockey weather" is nowhere on the list.

It's easy to see how going from the North, where temperatures have flirted with the far side of zero so often in recent weeks, to a place where palm trees line the roads could be more than a little unsettling, and the Penguins' record in Florida the past few years does nothing to refute that idea.

They are 1-8 in their past nine games at the BankAtlantic Center, where they will face the Florida Panthers at 7:38 p.m. tomorrow, and 1-9 in their past 10 at the St. Pete Times Forum, where they will play Tampa Bay at 5:05 p.m. Sunday.

Their run of misery at the Panthers' arena in suburban Sunrise includes a 5-2 loss Jan. 10, when they were outshot, outskated and outworked in every facet of play.

"That was the last time we actually didn't play well," right winger Mark Recchi said.

It also had been the Penguins' most recent loss in regulation until their 6-5 defeat Monday on Long Island.

In reality, though, the Penguins don't just struggle with the Florida-based teams when they travel south to play them. They have lost 14 of their past 16 overall against the Panthers and 11 in a row to the Lightning, although one of their three losses to Tampa Bay this season came in overtime and another in a shootout.

"We've lost at home, too, so we can't really blame the weather," center Sidney Crosby said.

Even if the Penguins' problems with the Panthers and Lightning were confined to road games, blaming them solely on playing in areas where T-shirts and shorts, not scarves and gloves, are normal attire at this time of year would be a copout.

The simple truth is, it's not any sunnier or warmer inside the buildings in Sunrise and Tampa than it is in any other arena in North America. If anything, it often is a bit chillier in them than in venues elsewhere.

"Once you get in the rink, it's back to normal," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "Everybody has their routine. Just because it's hot [outside] doesn't change that."

The Panthers and Lightning played in Tampa last night; Tampa Bay was hoping to strengthen its grip on first place in the Southeast Division, while Florida was looking to keep its long-shot playoff hopes on life support.

Although the Panthers seem like a good bet to be a seller in the days leading up to the trade deadline Tuesday -- veterans such as Gary Roberts, Jozef Stumpel, Martin Gelinas and Todd Bertuzzi, if he is deemed healthy, could command a lot of interest -- Recchi isn't ready to write off their season just yet.

"They're still in the hunt," he said. "They play well, and they play a good system."

Center Olli Jokinen is the Panther who gives the Penguins the most fits; for Tampa, it's usually Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis who give them the most trouble.

Odds are Jokinen will be on his game again tomorrow, and there's no reason to believe Lecavalier and St. Louis will be no-shows Sunday.

But the Penguins played some of their best hockey in this decade during parts of the 14-0-2 surge that ended Monday, and Fleury figures the next few days would be the ideal time to put their problems with the Panthers and Lightning behind them.

"Yeah," he said. "So we don't have to talk about it anymore."

NOTE -- Coach Michel Therrien, through a team spokesman, denied secondhand accounts that he criticized Fleury in the locker room after the Penguins' loss to the Islanders. Therrien gave reporters a harsh assessment of Fleury's performance during his postgame news conference saying, among other things, that "this is four games in a row that he's given up way too many goals."

Andy Marlin, Getty Images
Sidney Crosby says the Penguins can't blame the weather for their struggles with Florida's teams because they have lost to the Panthers and Lightning at Mellon Arena, too.
Click photo for larger image.

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Bob Smizik: Penguins' turnaround defies odds

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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