Stumbling Penguins fall again

Their current slump reaches 0-4-1 with a 4-2 loss to the Southeast Division-leading Atlanta Thrashers

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The Penguins have been breaking the 2006-07 season into five-game segments and completed the latest with a 4-2 loss to Atlanta at Mellon Arena last night.

Precisely how they finished a five-game block of anything in Game No. 36 isn't clear.

Precisely what will happen to their playoff prospects if they continue on the 0-4-1 pace they've maintained the past five games is all too obvious.

"If we want to compete, we have to pick it up," center Sidney Crosby said. "It starts with one. We just have to worry about getting one."

One victory, that is. That's something the Penguins (15-15-6) haven't earned since a 7-4 decision against the New York Islanders Dec. 15.

Since then, they have slipped perilously close to the bottom of the Eastern Conference, even though they remain only a handful of points behind the playoff field in the East.

The Thrashers, meanwhile, tightened their grip on first place in the Southeast Division and pulled to within three points of Buffalo, which owns the best record in the East.

That's pretty heady territory for a franchise that never has been in the playoffs, although the Thrashers have been developing into an impact team the past few years.

Winning the Southeast doesn't seem to be a priority for the Thrashers just yet -- "Nobody thinks about it," center Bobby Holik said. "There's a long way to go" -- but their emergence as a threat to take the division doesn't qualify as one of the season's more shocking developments.

"[It's] not really [a surprise], not with the talent they have," Penguins right winger Mark Recchi said. "They've got a great young goalie and they're playing well as a team. The guys know their roles and really seemed to have accepted them."

The Thrashers have a few soft spots -- they could use a dominant No. 1 center and a bit more mobility on defense -- but it's not out of the question that they could make a serious run in the playoffs.

"With four deep lines, if their goalie gets hot, you could see it," Penguins defenseman Ryan Whitney said.

Especially when goalie Kari Lehtonen plays the way he did in stopping 35 of 37 shots last night. Which he has done for most of the past few months.

"This year, he's been phenomenal," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said.

Lehtonen is a big part of the reason Crosby has been held pointless in consecutive games for just the second time this season, but he couldn't prevent Erik Christensen of the Penguins from scoring the only goal of the first period.

Christensen's rebound of a Whitney shot eluded Lehtonen, but caromed off the right goalpost and then bounced off both of Lehtonen's skates and skidded across the goal line.

"When we get the lead, we need to win those tight games," Penguins right winger Michel Ouellet said.

Nice idea, but Atlanta tied it, 1-1, at 8:18 of the second, when defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski got his first goal in 25 games on a shot from above the left hash during a four-on-four. Vishnevski's shot deflected off Christensen and radically changed directions, eliminating any chance Fleury had of stopping it.

Niclas Havelid put Atlanta up, 2-1, with a power-play goal at 16:10, when he took a feed from Marian Hossa and beat Fleury from inside the left circle.

Therrien had deployed Evgeni Malkin on the left point of the No. 1 power-play unit during the first two periods -- "We wanted to change things up a little bit," he said -- but put Whitney there when the Penguins started the third with a man-advantage and was rewarded with a goal less than a minute later.

Whitney whipped a wrist shot past Lehtonen from near the top of the left circle just 57 seconds into the third for his fifth of the season.

The 2-2 tie it produced melted away at 7:04, however, as Atlanta scored off a rush when Kozlov converted a nice set-up by ex-Penguin Jon Sim.

Sim had the puck near the top of the right circle and fed it to Kozlov at the bottom of the left, from where he threw it by Fleury for what proved to be the winner. Holik closed out the scoring with an empty-netter at 19:41.

Holik's goal guaranteed the Penguins' winless streak would stretch to five games and make their daunting task of competing for a playoff berth tougher.

"There's nothing wrong with facing adversity," Therrien said. "It's going to make us better."

Or at least encourage them to find a new way to break down their season.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Goalie Marc-Andre Fleury makes a save against the Atlanta Thrashers in the second period last night at Mellon Arena.
Click photo for larger image.
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Sidney Crosby reacts after being taken down in the third period against the Thrashers. Crosby finished the game without scoring a point.
Click photo for larger image.

Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com .


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