Penguins unable to dig out of hole

There are few things coaches value more than consistency.

Most of the time, anyway.

But there can be exceptions, and the Penguins are living one.

Their 3-2 loss to Montreal at Mellon Arena last night means they have alternated defeats and victories for nine consecutive games.

It's not tough to pick up the pattern there and, while that trend might appear to bode well for their chances of beating Boston Tuesday at Mellon Arena, it's not much of a blueprint for long-term success.

"That's something we've talked about, trying to get it going," goalie Marc-Andre Fleury said. "To have, like, two wins in a row and start building from there."

An admirable goal, to be certain, and one that will be a lot easier to achieve if the Penguins can remember how to win a game on home ice, where they have lost four of the past five.

"It's not good, but I think we could see that tonight was different," Fleury said. "We definitely played better than the last couple [of home games]. We're close. We're close."

Perhaps, but they're also 19-13-4, and in seventh place in the Eastern Conference. Even so, the Penguins seemed genuinely encouraged by the way they competed with the Canadiens.

"You want to gain momentum, gain some streaks," center Sidney Crosby said. "For that to happen, you need to be consistent with your play. We haven't had that, but tonight was a step in the right direction, even though the results weren't there."

Montreal's Andrei Kostitsyn broke a 2-2 and notched his first career hat trick at 2:21 of the third period when he got control of the puck in the neutral zone and moved quickly into the Penguins' zone, then used defenseman Brooks Orpik as a screen and beat Fleury with a slap shot from above the right circle.

"He turned it back right away," Orpik said. "There was not much you could do there."

Turned out the Penguins couldn't accomplish much at the other end of the rink, either. They threw 17 shots at Canadiens goalie Carey Price in the third period, and he rejected them all.

"Carey Price was outstanding," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "He stole the game."

That might have been a bit of an overstatement, but Price did come through with 32 saves, including several quality ones when the Penguins were pressing for the tying goal as regulation wound down.

"We got a lot of shots," left winger Pascal Dupuis said. "They just didn't go in. If we play that way, you give yourself a chance to win."

The Penguins never got an opportunity to play from in front last night, because they started the first period by giving up a bad goal and finished it by allowing one that was worse.

Kostitsyn put Montreal in front, 1-0, 75 seconds into the game when he worked free at the front lip of the crease and rapped a centering pass from Tomas Plekanec behind Fleury.

"You never want to start the game behind the eight-ball, and that's what we did," Therrien said.

The Penguins ended up there again with just 1.6 seconds to go before intermission as Kostitsyn was left unchecked just below the hash marks and converted a feed from Plekanec to cap a late flurry by the Canadiens.

"The goal we gave up with two seconds left was not a good goal," Therrien said. "Other than those plays [on Montreal's first-period goals], I thought we were pretty solid."

The Penguins had pulled even at 14:44, when Dupuis' shot from above the right circle missed the net, but caromed off the back boards and into the crease, where it struck Price's pads and skidded across the goal line.

Price denied Crosby on a rebound from point-blank range at 1:14 of the second, but couldn't prevent him from tying the game on a wraparound at the right post at 5:51. The goal was Crosby's 15th of the season, albeit just his second in the past 13.

It also was the final one the Penguins got, even though they were awarded three power plays -- all after Kostitsyn had scored the winner.

Being betrayed by their power play, which finished the evening 0 for 5, is nothing new for the Penguins, Neither is losing to a team they're battling for playoff position. Those hard truths aside, to a man, they took this game as a step forward, even though the defeat knocked them back in the standings.

"If we keep playing like this, we'll be fine," Therrien said. "We'll be fine."

Dave Molinari can be reached at . First Published December 28, 2008 5:00 AM


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