If the Penguins played football -- and there had to be times last night when they wished they did -- this would have been described as a trap game.
They were matched against a low-profile opponent they never see more than once a year, if that, just 24 hours before what figures to be a high-intensity collision with a bitter rival.
And even though the Penguins, pretty much to a man, insisted they were not looking past Phoenix in what became a 3-0 loss to the Coyotes at Mellon Arena, there was not much evidence to back them up.
The Penguins played without their customary discipline, focus and intensity for much of the evening. They were short-handed no fewer than nine times, with at least some of those penalties stemming from the way they were outworked, out-fought and out-hustled.
"It was like we were having an uphill climb all night, for whatever reason," center Sidney Crosby said. "I don't think we can put our finger on it, but there's no excuse. We've got to find a way to be way better."
- Matchup: Penguins at Philadelphia Flyers, 7:08 p.m. today, Wachovia Center, Philadelphia.
- TV/Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Marc-Andre Fleury for Penguins. Ray Emery for Flyers.
- Penguins: Are playing on back-to-back nights for second time. ... C Sidney Crosby has 20 goals, 46 points in 26 career games vs. Flyers. ... Are 15-7 vs. Flyers over past two seasons.
- Flyers: C Mike Richards has scored 5 of team's 13 goals. ... Have killed 16 of 18 power plays (88.9 percent). ... Are 12-24 all time in shootouts.
- Hidden stat: Although the Penguins won series, 4-2, last season, goals were even, 21-21.
The good news for the Penguins is, that should be easier than finding a way to play worse.
The defeat cost the Penguins (2-1) an opportunity to start a season with three consecutive victories for the first time since the lockout-shortened season in 1995 as they prepare to visit Philadelphia at 7:08 tonight.
One of the few positive aspects of the game last night for the Penguins was the play of No. 2 goalie Brent Johnson, who stopped 22 of 24 shots and did not allow an even-strength goal while making his first start as a Penguin.
"Brent played very well," coach Dan Bylsma said. "Early on, he made a couple of real big saves."
That's more than his Phoenix counterpart, Ilya Bryzgalov, was forced to do. The Penguins finished with 24 shots, but few came on second chances, and Bryzgalov never had to make a sensational save while becoming the third visiting goaltender to record a shutout at Mellon Arena since Dec. 23.
He, like his teammates, did everything necessary to win this game. It just was not nearly as much as is generally required to leave here with two points.
"Whether they were aggressive or tried to close things up, it still comes down to what we do," Crosby said. "And we didn't do a whole lot."
Crosby, who so often sets a positive tone for his teammates, looked to be in a sour mood throughout the game, regularly complaining to the officials about calls and decisions with which he did not agree.
"I got a little frustrated," he said. "That's something that can't happen. I've got to make sure I maintain focus. And even with all the penalties at the start, I kind of let that affect me personally and the rest of the guys, too. I've got to do a better job."
Which is not to suggest that Crosby was alone in that.
"Frustration is not letting go of past actions," Bylsma said. "We got frustrated. We weren't feeling good about the way we were playing or managing the puck.
"We didn't like how the flow of the game was going. As a result, we did get frustrated. That's not something we've seen a lot from our team and our players."
Crosby picked up two of the 11 minor penalties the Penguins were assessed; he also was more heavily involved than usual in killing the rest. After averaging 41 seconds of short-handed ice time during the first two games, Crosby was on the ice for two minutes, 20 seconds while the Penguins were down a man.
Phoenix got its first two goals, by Ed Jovanovski and Petr Prucha, on power plays and the third, by Radim Vrbata, into an empty net with 53.7 seconds left in regulation.
The Coyotes were awarded the first four power plays and received them on merit.
"I'm sure the people in Pittsburgh didn't like that they were on the penalty-kill for 7 1/2 minutes in the first period, but I thought that our speed and our competitiveness drew some of those penalties," Phoenix coach Dave Tippett said.
Jovanovski gave the Coyotes the only goal they would need at 9:07 of the opening period, and Prucha made it 2-0 at 10:47 of the second. Aside from an apparent goal by defenseman Alex Goligoski that was disallowed because of an interference minor assessed to Matt Cooke, the Penguins never seriously threatened to score.
"We weren't sharp," forward Mike Rupp said. "We didn't execute, and they did.
"It's a game we have to learn from and move on."
For more on the Penguins, read the new Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . First Published October 8, 2009 4:00 AM