The Penguins hadn't played with a lead for 10 days.
Hadn't seen goalie Marc-Andre Fleury look like he expected to stop every shot he faced in weeks.
Hadn't gotten a goal from anyone except Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora in what seemed like forever.
And had to be feeling as if it had been at least that long since they won a game before beating the New York Islanders, 3-2, last night at Mellon Arena.
The victory ended a four-game losing streak and raised the Penguins' record to 8-10-1. More important, it was a first step toward restoring the confidence that had been shaken by going 1-6 in the previous seven games.
"As [the slump] keeps going, it builds and wears on you a bit," said Crosby, who extended his scoring streak to 18 games with an assist on Georges Laraque's winning goal.
"It kind of [stinks], every day when you keep losing," Fleury said. "Everybody's in a bad mood."
That's understandable, considering how the Penguins had been sliding through the standings.
"We were three [games] under .500," Laraque said. "To make the playoffs, you have to be at least 10 games over .500. We have to get back to that mark.
"At the beginning of the season, you can't be too many games under .500 because the next thing you know, you have to play catch-up, and you run out of time."
The biggest difference last night was the outcome, of course, but the changes actually began before the game. That's when coach Michel Therrien scratched two prominent veterans, winger Mark Recchi and defenseman Darryl Sydor, as well as right winger Colby Armstrong. Therrien previously had refrained from sitting his older players.
"It was really difficult," Therrien said. "They took it like pros."
Fleury stopped 26 shots while playing his best game in weeks -- I think he had a lot of fun," Therrien said -- but the Penguins still gave up the first goal for the fifth consecutive game, as Mike Comrie deflected in a Brendan Witt shot at 14:17 of the opening period.
The Penguins did not wilt after falling behind, and Sergei Gonchar tied the score at 18:22 by lashing a slap shot from the top of the slot past Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro. Malkin and Fleury picked up assists on that goal, Gonchar's fifth.
The Penguins subsequently were awarded a two-man advantage for 87 seconds -- 24 at the end of the first, 63 at the start of the second -- and needed most of that time before taking a 2-1 lead.
Sykora put them in front -- the first time they had not been even or behind since a 5-0 victory Nov. 5 at New Jersey -- by jamming the puck behind DiPietro from the left post at 58 seconds for his eighth. Sykora scored five seconds before the Penguins' two-man advantage was scheduled to end and gave the Penguins at least one power-play goal in 18 of their 19 games.
New York countered at 8:51, as Josef Vasicek was left unchecked in front of Fleury and backhanded a Bruno Gervais rebound into the net.
At the time, Vasicek's goal did not bode well for the Penguins, considering that they had not scored more than twice in the previous four games and six of the previous seven. But they regained the lead -- and got what proved to be the winner -- from a most improbable source as the period wound down.
At 16:45, Laraque -- who had gone 39 games without a goal, a streak dating to Jan. 17 -- took a pass from Crosby and stuck a shot under the crossbar behind DiPietro at 16:45.
"I knew he was going to feed it to me in the slot," Laraque said. "That's why I went to the net. And I was wide open.
"The goalie always goes down, and I knew the only way I was going to score was to go up to, and that's what I did."
The Penguins protected that lead for the final 23-plus minutes of regulation, and snapped a four-game losing streak at Mellon Arena.
Still, they are just 4-5-1 there, and upgrading that record will be critical if they are to be a factor in the playoff race.
"We have to start being a hard team to play against at home," Laraque said.
"We have to start winning home games."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published November 16, 2007 5:00 AM