OTTAWA -- It's not unusual for Penguins coach Michel Therrien to gather his players around him at the start of practice.
Yesterday, it was a little different.
Therrien made it clear in a short speech that he is not satisfied with the team's performance lately. He strongly suggested increased focus and decreased joking around in practice.
Then, he oversaw a crisp, tightly run session at Scotiabank Place as the team prepped for its game today against the Ottawa Senators.
"I think all the guys saw it coming," winger Ryan Malone said. "We've won some games we probably shouldn't have and lost a couple others.
- Matchup: Penguins at Ottawa Senators, 3:08 p.m. today, Scotiabank Place.
- TV, radio: FSN Pittsburgh; WXDX-FM (105.9).
- Probable goaltenders: Ty Conklin for Penguins. Martin Gerber for Senators.
- Penguins: Are 1-1-1 against Senators, including 6-5 shootout victory Nov. 22 in Ottawa. ... C Evgeni Malkin has been shut out in three of past four games. ... Scored at least one power-play goal in 16 of past 18 games.
- Senators: Are 1-3-1 in past five home games. ... RW Daniel Alfredsson does not have assist in past six games. ... Rank second in league with 12 shorthanded goals.
- Hidden stat: Senators have scored first in 29 of their 36 victories.
"It's kind of good to get our butt kicked."
Although his message was team-wide, Therrien seemed to single out Georges Laraque, and toward the end of the session directed the winger to do cross-ice sprints along the center red line.
"We want Georges to move his feet a little better," was the only explanation Therrien gave.
Laraque quietly took a few questions afterward, mostly offering yes or no answers, but indicated the sprints could be a way to make up for low ice time. He has not topped eight minutes the past four games.
"I'm not playing in games, so he gave me extra in practice," said Laraque, who has no points and a plus-minus rating of minus-3 over the past 18 games
Forward Max Talbot said when Therrien challenges one player, the rest listen.
"Sometimes you have to point a finger and everybody realizes, OK, come on, guys, and that's what happened," said Talbot. "I think he's right on. Lately, I don't know if it's a lack of focus or what, but we have to sharpen up. That starts with practice."
Although the Penguins, depleted by injuries, have remained in strong contention for Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference titles, they are 1-1-2 over their past four games and have done some soul-searching after each of those games.
There was the 4-3 overtime loss a week ago to Ottawa in which the Penguins had what Therrien counted as 30 scoring chances but blew a three-goal lead.
And a 2-1 shootout loss to San Jose the next day that left the Penguins feeling as if they didn't give their all.
They beat the New York Islanders on the road, 4-2, Tuesday, largely because goaltender Ty Conklin made 50 saves. Most recently, the Penguins lost, 5-1, Thursday at Boston.
"It's fair to say we haven't been playing the way we're capable of," Malone said. "It starts in practice.
"Usually, when we're put to a challenge, we come through pretty well. Everybody knows they have to pick up their game."
Therrien conceded that his team has done a masterful job holding off most of the rest of the conference while playing long stretches without many injured players -- forwards Sidney Crosby, Gary Roberts and Adam Hall, defenseman Mark Eaton and goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who likely will make his first start since Dec. 6 in a home game tomorrow against Atlanta.
Even newcomer Marian Hossa, the prolific winger, acquired from Atlanta in a trade at the Tuesday deadline, lasted less than two periods as a Penguin before leaving with a knee injury.
"We're facing a lot of adversity, and you get away from your focus," Therrien said. "We're missing tons of players. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. The only way we are going to be able to perform is we need our focus to be 100 percent.
"You need breaks to win hockey games, but, when your work ethic is there, that is when you get more breaks. I don't think the work ethic was 100 percent there [Thursday night], and we didn't get any breaks."
Talbot didn't interpret Therrien's crackdown as an end to the upbeat atmosphere the Penguins have enjoyed since they climbed into contention around midseason, just a reminder that there needs to be balance.
"It's good to have fun and be loose, but, at some point, you realize what can happen," he said. "You look at [Philadelphia, which recently went 0-8-2]. They were battling for first place and, a few weeks later, they're almost out of the playoffs.
"[Yesterday] was a good example of how good we can be. I think it was the best practice in weeks."
Which, when you get down to it, was just what Therrien was trying to coax from his frequently changing roster of players.
"We've got new players coming in, [injuries]. There's a lot of distractions," Therrien said.
"But, as a coach, it's my responsibility to ... bring them back on track.
Shelly Anderson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1721. First Published March 1, 2008 5:00 AM