RALEIGH, N.C. -- The Penguins have had major problems closing out games lately.
They were outscored, 6-1, in the third period in recent losses to the New York Islanders and Toronto, games in which they either led or were tied after 40 minutes.
Carolina, which the Penguins will face at 7:08 p.m. today at PNC Arena, has had a similar, though not identical, problem for much of the season: The Hurricanes have made a habit of getting poor starts, putting themselves in holes from which they often cannot escape.
Carolina's opponents have taken multiple-goal leads in three of the past five games and the Hurricanes have been outscored, 9-3, in the opening period in their 11 games.
"You can't win consistently in this league if you're spotting teams two goals," coach Kirk Muller said after the Hurricanes practice Sunday at PNC Arena.
Although Carolina has been shut out in Period 1 eight times, Muller believes their early game issues are not a matter of effort.
"We have to come out smarter and have a good first period, where we play the game the right way," he said. "And just keep building as the game goes."
Because the Penguins have lost three consecutive games -- something that didn't happen last regular season -- and Carolina has dropped two in a row, Muller expects ample urgency from both clubs this evening.
"I said to the guys, 'Hey, [tonight's] going to be a heck of a hockey game, because you've got two teams that shouldn't be very happy,' " he said.
"I think there's going to be a lot of emotion and intensity. Should be a good one."
Missing a key
The Penguins know what it's like to be missing key players because of injuries -- James Neal has skated all of five shifts for them this season, and defensman Kris Letang sat out the first nine games -- but Carolina is trying to get by without probably its most valuable guy.
Goalie Cam Ward is on injured-reserve after sustaining an unspecified injury Thursday in Minnesota. General manager Jim Rutherford said he is expected to be out for three or four weeks.
"It's a tough loss, for sure," said Penguins center Brandon Sutter, a former Hurricanes player. "He's had a couple of tough injuries. Hopefully, he'll be back in a couple of weeks.
"They're in good hands, but it's always tough to replace a guy like that."
Until Ward returns, Justin Peters and Mike Murphy will take over in goal for Carolina, which also signed former NHLer Rick DiPietro to a minor league contract over the weekend.
Carolina also might face the Penguins without its leading scorer, left winger Jeff Skinner, who has an unspecified injury and underwent an MRI Sunday while his teammates were skating.
Light fan turnout
Carolina's practice Sunday was open to the public which, per team policy, has been the case for nearly a decade.
But the Hurricanes workouts don't seem to be a big draw. At least not on a Sunday when the NFL is in session and the North Carolina state fair is going on nearby.
A quick head count in the middle of the session showed 14 fans to be on hand.
Hurricanes forward Nathan Gerbe, formerly of Buffalo, skated Sunday alongside Eric Staal and Alexander Semin on Carolina's top line, although Muller did not commit to using him there tonight. ... The Penguins had a scheduled day off Sunday.
Dave Molinari: Dmolinari@Post-Gazette.com or Twitter @MolinariPG