Just when things seemed to be turning around comes another sickly performance

UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- It's easy to blame injuries for the Penguins' predicament, the way they are clinging to the periphery of the Eastern Conference playoff race with just 25 games remaining.

Or to point to things such as inconsistent goaltending, sub-par performances from just about everyone on the roster and the fact that some of their forwards don't possess enough grit for it to register as a trace element.

And it's true that all of those factors have played a part in putting the Penguins where they are as they prepare to face the New York Islanders at 2:08 p.m. today at Nassau Coliseum.

But the best explanation for why the Penguins, who came within two victories of a Stanley Cup last spring, are a good bet to sit out the playoffs in 2009 might be this team simply is allergic to success.

That might seem like a bit of a reach, and there certainly are no scientific studies to back up such a diagnosis.

But the Penguins have proven they can't tolerate anything more than a brief, mild exposure to prosperity, as shown by their inability to win more than two consecutive games since mid-November.

"The continuous two-steps-forward-one-step-back, or one-step-forward-two-steps-back is getting frustrating," defenseman Mark Eaton said yesterday. "If we want to make the playoffs, we can't do that."

If they want to make the playoffs, they can't allow a 2-0 lead against a weak team to mutate into a 6-2 loss, as happened in Toronto Saturday night.

A victory against the Maple Leafs could have added to the momentum they had generated in the previous 10 days or so. Instead, the Penguins were outshot, 29-16, in the final 40 minutes and outscored, 6-0, over that span in what proved to be Michel Therrien's final game as the Penguins' coach.

"It took me by surprise," Therrien said, "because I really liked the way we had been playing."

With good reason. When they reached the first intermission Saturday, the Penguins had piled up 11 mostly solid periods of hockey, dating to the third period of a 4-3 overtime victory against Tampa Bay Feb. 4.

In the interim, they defeated Columbus and San Jose and were more competitive with Detroit than the Red Wings' 3-0 margin of victory suggests.

"It started to feel like we were turning the corner and getting some consistency going," Eaton said.

"We're extremely disappointed with [Saturday] night, and the fact that we can't get a solid, long streak going."

Fair enough, except that it should be clear by now that any time the Penguins have a chance to take a significant step forward, they don't simply shoot themselves in the foot. They blow off everything from the waist down.

Against the Maple Leafs, that translated to being put on their heels ---- and ultimately, on their backs -- by a team whose general manager will spend the time between now and the March 4 trade deadline trying to break up his roster and sell it off for parts.

"That's a big two points we lost, to a team that's behind us," center Max Talbot said. "So obviously, it's a real tough one to take."

The Maple Leafs got plenty of second-chance goals and uncontested opportunities in front of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, which is why Therrien planned to get defenseman Hal Gill back into the lineup today.

He sat out the Toronto game to clear a spot for Sergei Gonchar, who made his 2008-09 debut after recovering from shoulder surgery.

"[Gill] didn't deserve to be out," Therrien said. "That was a [result] of Gonchar being back in the lineup. Obviously, we need to play better defensively, and he's good defensively."

It was unclear who will sit to clear a spot for Gill

Gill won't do much to upgrade the Penguins' skill level, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Left winger Matt Cooke believes the Toronto game was just one of several in which the Penguins mistakenly believed they would win solely on the basis of superior talent.

"We got caught in a situation against Toronto a couple of times where we've taken it for granted," Cooke said.

"Work beats skill on any night, and we have to realize that. Skill will prevail if the work ethic is there, but the work ethic has to be there."

It wasn't Saturday, and if the Penguins sit out the playoffs, that game might well go down as the one that doomed them, for they earned every wisp of embarrassment they endured

"Everybody knows it was a poor effort all-around, a poor team effort," Eaton said. "If you don't learn from it, it's just going to snowball."

And when that happens, there's no antidote.

Dave Molinari can be reached at dmolinari@post-gazette.com . First Published February 16, 2009 5:00 AM


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