PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins aren't skating like the team that reached the Stanley Cup finals last season. Aren't performing in net like that team. Aren't scoring on the power play like that team. Seem to lack the chemistry of that team.
The Penguins lost only two games in three Eastern Conference playoff rounds last spring, yet with 28 games remaining, they're still not assured of making the playoffs despite having the NHL's top two scorers in Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby.
What the Penguins may find out in the next four days is if a potential season-saving rally against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday was what they needed to get them going, or if it was merely a blip in an otherwise disappointing season.
"It's a playoff mentality right now, we have to move on to the next one," Crosby said.
The Penguins, coming off consecutive victories for only the second time since they won six in a row in early November, entertain Detroit on Sunday in the Red Wings' first visit to Pittsburgh since winning the Stanley Cup there in June. On Wednesday, the Penguins play Western Conference leader San Jose.
"For us, it's not about Detroit. It's going to be about us," coach Michel Therrien said. "We're in a position that we're fighting for our life."
It seems too early for a team that spent two months in playoff mode last year to be thinking that way, but the Penguins' uneven play during the first two-thirds of this season created their troubling situation.
Despite the steady and anticipated scoring of Malkin and Crosby, almost nothing else about the Penguins matches what they did last season.
The power play has fallen from No. 5 to No. 23 without point man Sergei Gonchar, who has missed the season with a shoulder injury and isn't expected back until the end of the month. Marc-Andre Fleury, who came close to winning the Cup for Pittsburgh last spring, is 10-10-1 in net since missing a month with a groin injury, giving up three or more goals 12 times.
There's no Marian Hossa to bring out the best in Crosby, either, as he did during the playoffs — Hossa unexpectedly signed with Detroit, which beat Edmonton 8-3 at home Saturday.
Miroslav Satan (14 goals) hasn't come close to matching Hossa's production, and Petr Sykora (21 goals) has been the only reliable scorer except for Malkin and Crosby.
The home ice advantage hasn't been there, either. Until they beat Tampa Bay 4-3 by rallying from three goals down in the third period and defeated Columbus 4-1 on Friday, the Penguins were 12-10-2 at home, where they lost only 10 games last season.
Another question is whether general manager Ray Shero can provide a big lift at the March 4 trading deadline like he did by acquiring Hossa last year. Shero gave up much of the organization's depth by dealing for Hossa and, as he said then, a trade like that isn't possible every year.
The Penguins also seem to be going through what is known in the NHL as the Stanley Cup hangover, a situation created when a new season arrives not all that long after an extended season ends in June.
The Penguins had only two hockey-free months in 2008, July and August, and they started this season early by playing Ottawa twice in Sweden.
Of the last 16 Stanley Cup finalists, only two got back the following season and neither won — Dallas lost to New Jersey in 2000 and New Jersey lost to Colorado in 2001. Four of the 16 didn't make the playoffs, and eight were beaten in the first round. One lost in the second round and the other lost in the conference finals.
The next two games may tell the Penguins whether any confidence gained by beating Tampa Bay and Columbus is false or if, after weeks of up-and-down play, they are ready to make a determined run for the playoffs. They were in ninth place in the Eastern Conference going into Saturday's games, but were only four points out of the sixth spot.
Until they rallied to beat Tampa Bay, the Penguins' best victory all season probably was their 7-6, come-from-behind win in Detroit on Nov. 11, when Jordan Staal scored three times. The Penguins trailed 5-2 in the third that night.
"It's a great challenge for us," Fleury said. "When you win and things go well, it just kind of builds up and you get more confidence as you go."