UNIONDALE, N.Y. -- Earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference, or even finish first in the Atlantic Division, and losing this game probably won't sting so much.
But until the Penguins do those things -- and especially if they fail to -- their 4-1 loss to the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum last night will go down as one of the low points of their season, a squandered opportunity to earn two points against a thoroughly overmatched opponent.
"I'm speechless about their effort, and I'm speechless about their concentration and their will to win this game," coach Michel Therrien said.
He should have been, on all counts.
After all, these were the same Islanders who had been formally eliminated from playoff contention the previous night, whose list of injured and ailing players swelled to 12 when center Mike Comrie was unable to play last night because of a flu-like illness.
Beating the patchwork lineup New York coach Ted Nolan had to work with should have been the easy part; identifying most of the guys wearing Islanders sweaters was what should have given the Penguins trouble.
Jeremy Colliton, anyone? How about Matthew Spiller? Or Aaron Johnson? Steve Regier, maybe?
"On paper, everyone would say we're the better team," Penguins center Jordan Staal said.
"But give them credit. They worked harder and made better plays."
And looked like the team that had more at stake than its positioning in the draft lottery. The Penguins, coming off an inspired -- and inspiring -- 7-1 victory against New Jersey at Mellon Arena Saturday, played with all the fury of a competitor in a quilting bee.
"Before the game, we said, 'Winning the other night was great, but if we don't win this one, that means absolutely nothing,' " said defenseman Brooks Orpik.
"This pretty much cancelled the two points we got against Jersey."
The loss leaves the Penguins (43-26-7) two points ahead of the second-place Devils in the Atlantic. They will face New Jersey, which has a game in hand, tonight in Newark, N.J.
The Penguins also slipped three points behind first-place Montreal in the Eastern standings, although they have a game in hand on the Canadiens.
Former Penguin Richard Park gave the Islanders a 1-0 lead with a short-handed goal at 3:22 of the first period, when he beat goalie Ty Conklin with a slap shot from the top of the right circle.
The Penguins got that goal back 36 seconds later, as Petr Sykora collected a rebound to the right of the New York net and stuck a shot under the cross bar for his 28th.
"We were kind of OK in the first period," Therrien said. "After that, we didn't play our game. The work ethic was not there."
Which explains why New York was able to score the final three goals.
Bill Guerin put New York in front to stay at 11:45 of the second, snapping a high shot past Conklin on the short side from just below the right dot.
The Islanders ran their lead to 3-1 on a power-play goal by Sean Bergenheim at 14:53 of the second, and Trent Hunter closed out the scoring at 12:41 of the final period.
"I'm really, really disappointed," Therrien said. "A really disappointing performance."
New York finished with a 36-29 edge in shots and controlled more of the play than its personnel suggested it should have been able to.
"They played like they had nothing to lose," Sykora said. "They came out and played very hard. ... They played hard, they played the body. They played a smart hockey game and waited for their chances."
The Penguins are 2-5 in their past seven away games, a troubling trend considering that survival in the playoffs often hinges on a team's ability to win in hostile settings.
"For some reason, we're playing terrible on the road," Orpik said. "I can't really pinpoint one thing. Maybe it's our focus.
"We seem to be giving up the first goal on the road all the time. Something that's key in this league is getting that first goal, forcing the other team to play a way they don't want to."
Explaining the Penguins' problems on the road of late is difficult, but not as tough as figuring out why they came out so flat in a game that meant so much.
"This was a game we could have won if we were ready for it," Staal said.
"Obviously, we weren't."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published March 25, 2008 4:00 AM