When the Penguins and Boston last met, Sidney Crosby was in the lineup for the Penguins, the Bruins were on a 13-0-1 roll, and the teams were the class of the Eastern Conference.
That was Dec. 5 at Consol Energy Center. The Bruins won, 3-1, to climb to within a point of the first-place Penguins in the East.
Today, when the teams meet for a matinee at TD Garden in Boston, the Penguins will have their necks craned. The defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins are second in the East, with 66 points, while the Penguins sit fifth with 62.
The Penguins are 3-6 against the four teams ahead of them in the East, with two of those wins coming against Florida.
Friday, Penguins winger Matt Cooke called the game this afternoon "one of the biggest challenges of the year."
The Penguins have been streaky since the earlier meeting. That game started a stretch of four losses in five games. Then came a four-game winning streak, a six-game losing streak and an eight-game winning streak before a 1-0 loss Wednesday in the road half of back-to-back games against Toronto.
• Game: Penguins vs. Boston Bruins, 1:08 p.m.
• Where: TD Garden, Boston.
• TV: Root Sports.
If they are going to take a run at Boston or Philadelphia, which leads the Atlantic Division, they can't sink into another losing skid.
After the game today, they play two more conference games -- Sunday afternoon at New Jersey and Tuesday night at Montreal -- before returning home.
"The way our conference is now, they're potential first-round matchups," Penguins center Dustin Jeffrey said. "It seems everybody is moving up and down, jockeying for position daily.
"So, these are all games we have to play close attention to."
The Penguins have played without Crosby since the earlier Bruins game because of symptoms associated with concussions that might stem from a newly discovered neck injury.
They also are missing center Jordan Staal, forward Arron Asham and defenseman Simon Despres.
Boston's only injury is to Nathan Horton, who has a concussion.
Boston doesn't have any players in the NHL's top 25 in scoring, but it has a considerable amount of offensive balance to go with a strong defense -- led by towering Zdeno Chara -- and stingy goaltending with a team goals-against average of 2.16.
Penguins center Evgeni Malkin went into the games Friday as the league's top scorer with 59 points. Linemate James Neal was tied for second in the NHL in goals (27) and power-play goals (13).
The trouble is, the Penguins top line, which also includes Chris Kunitz, has been logging a huge share of the scoring.
Over the past 12 games, Malkin, Neal and Kunitz have outscored the rest of the team, 19-12, including a 19-10 edge over the remainder of the forwards.
And three of those 10 goals from other forwards came Tuesday in a 5-4 shootout win against Toronto -- Cooke, Steve Sullivan and Joe Vitale.
"Up and down the lineup, guys need to contribute," winger Pascal Dupuis said. "We did it at home against Toronto. Some different guys stepped up and scored big goals. It can't always be [Malkin] and [Neal]. It's got to come from everybody."
Not that the Penguins want Malkin to slow down after racking up 12 goals in the past 12 games.
"For two months now, [Malkin] has been playing unbelievably," Jeffrey said. "But we need to have some secondary scoring, regardless of whether it's myself, [Tyler] Kennedy, [Sullivan], just up and down the lineup so all the weight isn't on the guys on the one line."
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma noted that the Bruins "are a great structure, great depth team. They're really sound both offensively and defensively."
But they have looked more human recently.
They are 4-4-1 in their past nine games after a stretch in which they won 25 of 30 games.
They have lost three games in a row at home to the Penguins since a 3-0 Boston win Nov. 10, 2009.
And they are coming off of a 3-0 loss at home Thursday against Carolina, which gave the Hurricanes their first season sweep of Boston in franchise history, including their years in Hartford.
Bylsma is going to tap that resource, saying the Hurricanes were "playing with some speed and getting on them and forcing them with that speed."
"We're definitely going to look at that game and more of the Carolina games to get an idea of what they did well and what we can do against a good team."