When It Hurts to Laugh: Islanders 4, Penguins 1

Justin K. Aller

Pittsburgh was at turns lazy, inefficient and unprepared to face a high-scoring Islanders team, and it showed in a 4-1 loss that wasn't as close as the score.

It took 59 minutes for Pascal Dupuis and to finally figure out Evgeni Nabokov. The Penguins have much more to figure out if they are to break themselves out of a 1-3-0 slump that has seen them drop convincing games to teams that, on paper, shouldn't be hanging such lopsided wins on the Penguins.

The Pens have dropped to fourth in the Atlantic and tenth in the East after losing three of their last four.

Through six games this season, the Penguins are undefeated against playoff teams of a year ago and have outscored them 10-5 with four power play goals. Conversely, they're 0-3-0 against non-playoff teams, having been outscored 13-5 with just one man-advantage marker in eight chances.

The difference has been effort.

Pittsburgh got outworked in 2005 fashion by an Islanders team that entered Tuesday averaging 3.6 goals per contest through its first five. The Islanders also came into the match with a top-five penalty kill percentage. The Penguins seemed unprepared for either reality, as the Islanders scored four times and held the Pens to 3 shots in 9 minutes of power play time.

Three Stars

1. Matt Moulson

A goal and an assist on the night. Helped make Pens' PK look statuesque

2. Evgeni Nabokov

Owns the Pens. 37 saves on 38 shots. Strongest when Pens occasionally got things going,

3. Michael Grabner

Pens' biggest vulnerability distilled into one play - took a blue line turnover to the house.

The lack of preparation for those match-ups is staggering.

At some point, rust gives way to fatigue gives way to bad hockey. The Pens have dropped three of their last four due largely to mental errors, lapses in effort and plain, bad hockey. The loss was highlighted by the aenemic power play and a staggering 11 giveaways (in reality, it could have been twice as many).

Pittsburgh has some work to do before visiting the Rangers Thursday.

As it was in the playoffs last season, special teams were the Pens' undoing Tuesday. Pittsburgh was a perfect 0-for-5 on special teams opportunities, surrendering easy goals on two penalty kills and managing just three shots in nine minutes of power play time.

The Islanders took pages from the playbooks of the Maple Leafs and Jets, pressuring a pass-happy unit into making mistakes and turning the puck over. The biggest culprits were again Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who have been unable to recapture the ease of scoring they enjoyed at the end of last regular season.

It's tough to diagnose what's gone wrong with so much seemingly out of sorts, but the simplest parts of the game—hard work and making good, simple plays—seem to be eluding the Pens early on.

Other areas of note:

Perhaps complacency is to blame for poor performances from the big names? The two guys who acquitted themselves nicely last night were the two who are fighting for their NHL jobs. Dustin Jeffrey looked strong all night. He accounted for no points but was smart defensively and complementary to Malkin and Neal on offense. At this point, a winger who gets out of the way is better than one who kills the rush (Tangradi, Kennedy). Jeffrey certainly earned a start Thursday.

Simon Despres, too, was strong against the Islanders. He was the Pens' most physical player and continuously made smart, simple plays that kept the Islanders from breaking out of their zone. His partner, Letang, could take notes on shooting not to pick a corner, but to just get the puck past the first defender. Looked very much like a top-four piece in his 19:12 minutes on the ice.

The power play has been figured out. Teams are taking away the Pens' ability to make passes to set up the backdoor one-timer to Neal, and it's become apparent that the entire structure of the unit was based on that single play. The unit hasn't scored in its last three games and surrendered more shorthanded shots than they generated Tuesday. Time to make an adjustment.

It's hard to see Ben Lovejoy getting another start after his work in the last three games. His giveaways have been right on par with Crosby and Malkin and his positional game has been rough. Despres acquitted himself nicely. Perhaps it's time to see if Robert Bortuzzo can do the same.

Rangers Thursday. Pens have little time to do soul-searching before then, but it's got to start somewhere.

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