Penguins fall to Coyotes, 3-2; playoff clinching put on hold

The Penguins aren't pretending injuries haven't been an issue for them.

That would be a pretty tough case to make, since their man-games lost total for the season has spiked to 447.

But they also don't use their medical miseries -- including the foot injury that's expected to force center Evgeni Malkin to sit out most, if not all, the rest of the regular season -- to excuse their frequently lackluster play of late, including a 3-2 loss against Phoenix at Consol Energy Center Tuesday night.

"It's tough to maintain that [high level of play, despite injuries] over the course of a season, for sure," center Sidney Crosby said. "It's not easy, but I don't think there's anyone feeling sorry for us.

"But that still doesn't allow us to not have the right type of effort and work ethic. As far as executing and things like that, it might be a little different with missing so many guys, but the work ethic still has to be there. There's no excuse for that, and tonight, it wasn't."

Injuries to key players, of course, have become downright routine for the Penguins.

So, lately, has facing backup goalies, something that used to happen only a few times per season.

They have gone against No. 2s for three games in a row and have managed to beat only one.

The latest to stymie them was Thomas Greiss of the Coyotes, who stopped 23 of 25 shots.

Mike Smith is Phoenix's go-to guy and the primary reason the Coyotes are competing for a Western Conference playoff berth, but he was injured Monday night in New York.

And even though Coyotes coach Dave Tippett said Greiss had been penciled in to start against the Penguins even before Smith got hurt, it's not out of the question that Smith might have been called upon again.

Phoenix is desperate for every point it can get; the Penguins, conversely, are 13 points ahead of the second-place New York Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, but are justifiably concerned about getting their game in synch before the Stanley Cup playoffs begin in three weeks.

"We have nights where we're going real good, everybody's executing, we have great life, everyone's competing like crazy," defenseman Matt Niskanen said.

"Then we've had a few nights where we're just not very good. What's causing it? I don't know, but we've got to try to find a way to be better."

Discipline and focus are two areas that have an obvious need for an upgrade. The Penguins have gotten in the habit of taking needless penalties, often in the offensive zone, and those lapses are showing up on the scoreboard.

Phoenix, for example, got the winning goal at 13:18 of the second period, when Coyotes forward Mikkel Boedker stuck a high shot past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury from along the goal line to the right of the net. The puck sailed past Fleury just as Penguins winger Jussi Jokinen was stepping out of the penalty box after serving two minutes for a slash in the Coyotes' end.

"It's in the offensive zone," coach Dan Bylsma said. "It's retaliatory. It's undisciplined. It's slashing the back of the legs.

"We talk about lack of composure. That's retaliating for a hit, a cross-check to his back, but he makes the play.

"He's 200 feet from our goalie. That's the one that ends up in the back of our net. ... The undisciplined penalty there was the difference in the game."

It certainly isn't the only time recently that the Penguins have given away a point or two on the strength of a penalty that served no good purpose.

"We've been talking about it for a week now, or two weeks," center Brandon Sutter said. "We've had it happen several times. "It's not any one guy. It's a team thing. We've got to do a better job of that.

"It's the kind of penalty, you don't take those in the playoffs, so there's no reason to take them now. We have to be smarter than that."

The Penguins, somewhat incredibly, had won the previous 16 consecutive regular-season home games when Malkin wasn't in their lineup.

That certainly doesn't reflect his value -- he is their No. 2 scorer --and the challenge of winning regularly without him will be compounded if the Penguins can't maintain reasonable levels of focus, discipline and exertion.

"If our effort's there, we're going to give ourselves a chance to be in games and to create things," Crosby said. "And, if it's not, we're going to make it pretty tough on ourselves."

Dave Molinari: and Twitter @MolinariPG. First Published March 25, 2014 9:51 PM

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