SUNRISE, Fla. -- Sometimes, when the going gets tough, things get tossed out the window.
Like Penguins coach Michel Therrien insisting he wanted to keep Evgeni Malkin's line together.
Like the team's goaltending pendulum swinging toward Marc-Andre Fleury.
Therrien didn't hesitate to change those things last night to try to alter the course of what became a 5-2 loss to the Florida Panthers at BankAtlantic Center.
When the Penguins were plagued with some defensive breakdowns and fell behind, 3-1, through one period while being outshot, 19-9, Therrien pulled Fleury for Ty Conklin.
- Game: Penguins vs. Capitals, 12:38 p.m. Sunday.
- Where: Verizon Center, Washington.
- TV: WPXI.
When they fell behind, 4-1, he broke up the line of Malkin centering wingers Petr Sykora and Ryan Malone, moving Malkin to the wing with center Sidney Crosby and Malone, and assigning Sykora to a spot with Jordan Staal and Pascal Dupuis.
"I tried everything in my power as a coach to try to change momentum, get the attention of the players," Therrien said.
The Penguins are beginning to make a habit of starting games slowly and having to play catchup or counting heavily on goaltending.
"It's the leadership," Therrien said. "Everyone has to come to the rink and battle right from the start. I'm starting to get concerned."
The Penguins, who have 13 games left in the regular season, maintained the lead in the Atlantic Division, but were in danger of being caught in the Eastern Conference by Montreal and/or Ottawa, both of which had late games in the west.
"The standings are so close, and we fought for 67 games to get to first place," defenseman Darryl Sydor said. "It would be nice to take it over and be in control instead of [having to] keep fighting."
The Panthers took a 2-0 lead early in the first period, scoring twice in a 39-second span with the assistance of some defensive breakdowns.
David Booth made it 1-0 at 4:19 when he whipped the puck past Fleury off a feed from Nathan Horton.
At 4:58, Rostislav Olesz knocked in a rebound using Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney as a screen to make it 2-0.
"We lost a lot of battles in front of the net," Therrien said.
The Penguins got one back at 6:19 when Malone, in his customary spot in front of the net, scored on a rebound of a shot from the point by defenseman Hal Gill. It was Gill's first point as a Penguin. He was obtained from Toronto at the trade deadline last month.
The goal was the first allowed by Panthers goaltender Craig Anderson in a span of 150:21. He was coming off back-to-back shutouts.
Florida regained its two-goal edge at 17:54 of the first period. Fleury moved to his right to clear a rebound but dropped his stick. He dove back to his left as Stephen Weiss caught up to a pass from Booth, but Weiss easily beat Fleury.
Conklin replaced Fleury for the start of the second period, but that didn't stop Florida's domination.
Fleury had started and won the previous two games after coming back from a high ankle sprain. Conklin was his capable fill-in but had lost two games in a row before Fleury's two recent starts.
When Brett McLean scored from a scramble in front of Conklin at 3:34 to make it 4-1, the Panthers increased their shot edge to 25-9.
That's when Therrien switched his lines.
"It's been a few games and Malkin's line with Malone and Sykora, nothing's happening," Therrien said of the threesome, which has produced three even-strength goals over the past three games but hasn't been as dominant as it was before that.
Twice in two days, Therrien had explained that the success and chemistry of the Malkin-Sykora-Malone line and his desire to keep it intact was a big reason the Penguins made a big splash at the trade deadline to acquire high-scoring winger Marian Hossa from Atlanta. Hossa, who is out with a knee injury, is slated to play with Crosby as early as Sunday at Washington -- or at least that was the plan before last night.
Putting Crosby and Malkin together is something Therrien has done at times to give his team a spark, although the two were playing together for some time and doing well before Crosby got a high ankle sprain seven weeks ago. This was his second game back.
"We know when we're put together, we have to create something," Crosby said of being placed with Malkin. "We had some good chances, but we didn't put it in.
First Published March 7, 2008 5:00 AM