UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- First place in the Eastern Conference still is a mathematical possibility for the Penguins.
Fifth place, however, has become a clear and present danger.
Being swept by the New York Islanders in a home-and-home series, including an 5-3 defeat Thursday night at Nassau Coliseum, has cost the Penguins any realistic hope they had of stealing the top seed in the conference from the New York Rangers.
And it has put them in very real peril of slipping into fifth place behind Philadelphia, which would give the Flyers home-ice advantage if, as seems likely, the teams meet in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
- Matchup: Penguins vs. Buffalo Sabres, 7:38 p.m. today, First Niagara Center, Buffalo, N.Y.
- TV, Radio: Root Sports, WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Brent Johnson for Penguins; Ryan Miller for Sabres.
- Penguins: Have won at least one game in Buffalo in 10 of past 11 seasons. ... C Evgeni Malkin has three goals, three assists in two games against Sabres in 2011-12 ... Are 7-6-2 in second game when playing on consecutive days, which they are doing for final time this season.
- Sabres: Are 20-11-8 at home, including 6-2 victory Feb. 19 against Penguins. ... RW Drew Stafford has six goals, eight assists in past eight games. ... Have scored first in 25 of their 38 victories.
- Hidden stat: Ten of Penguins' past 14 games against Sabres have been decided by one goal.
The Penguins own a two-point lead on the Flyers and, like Philadelphia, have five games remaining. Two of those will be played at Consol Energy Center, where the Flyers' all-time record is 4-0.
"You look at the standings, and see how close it is," defenseman Zbynek Michalek said. "If you go into a few games' slide and [the Flyers] are winning, they can catch up to us easily. They're not far behind us.
"We have to start getting some points in the bank and secure home-ice advantage, for sure."
There was a distinct urgency in Michalek's tone. One far more evident than most of his teammates had shown in the game.
The Penguins (47-24-6) have made a habit of rebounding well from subpar efforts. Thursday night, though, they seemed more intent on replicating their lackluster showing in a 5-3 loss 48 hours earlier at Consol Energy Center.
"We talked about it a lot and we expect it from the guys to have a better effort ... it just wasn't there," center Jordan Staal said. "We have to definitely find a way to get our game back and do the things we need to do to win games."
Similar sentiments were expressed by center Sidney Crosby, whose game might best be summed up this way: Getting smacked on the left side of the nose by a Dylan Reese clearing attempt early in the second period -- and still bleeding from his nose after the game -- might be his fondest memory of the game.
"We didn't do a lot of good things and paid for it again," Crosby said. "We made some mistakes and they capitalized."
That was particularly true of Islanders center Josh Bailey, who followed up a three-point game Tuesday by scoring two goals and setting up the other three. Give him a few more games against the Penguins, and the Islanders might be hoisting Bailey's No. 12 into the rafters alongside those of guys such as Bryan Trottier and Mike Bossy.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma opened the game with new line combinations, putting Crosby between Chris Kunitz and Pascal Dupuis, Steve Sullivan and James Neal with Evgeni Malkin and having Staal flanked by Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy.
That the Penguins scored one of their goals while killing a penalty and another after replacing goalie Marc-Andre Fleury with an extra attacker late in regulation accurately reflects how the reconfigured units fared.
Bylsma, though, seemed confident after the game that those lines can be productive.
"Evgeni with James Neal and Steve Sullivan can be a very effective line, at both ends of the rink, against any group," he said.
"Kunitz, Crosby and Dupuis can be a top line in the league, with the way they play and Jordan Staal, Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy can be on the ice and play against any other line in the league. That's what we know we can get from those three lines."
Marty Reasoner of New York scored the only goal of the opening period, but Dupuis negated that with a short-handed goal at 8:37 of the second. That goal, his 24th, extended Dupuis' scoring streak to 12 games, matching the longest in the NHL this season.
Kyle Okposo put the Islanders back in front with a power-play goal at 16:36, however, and Bailey made it 3-1 two minutes later.
Okposo got what proved to be the winner at 5:52 of the second, and after goals by Staal (8:20) and Malkin (18:29) injected a bit of suspense, Bailey sealed the victory with an empty-netter at 19:55.
And so the Islanders got a victory that could help to sustain them through another spring without playoffs, while the Penguins received another reminder of how their game must be upgraded. Quickly.
"We're not playing our best hockey and we're losing games," Staal said. "That's definitely something we have to address."
For more on the Penguins, read the Pens Plus blog with Dave Molinari and Shelly Anderson at www.post-gazette.com/plus . Dave Molinari: firstname.lastname@example.org and Twitter @molinaripg. First Published March 30, 2012 4:00 AM