Lullabies and Paralyzed. Hurricanes 4, Penguins 1

Mark Dadswell

Hit the literal snooze button.

The Pittsburgh Penguins were retreating down ice and retrieving another puck somewhere into the second shift of a listless power play late in the second period on Tuesday. It might have been the second period? Who remembers. Perturbed, the home crowd offered up a lazy round of boos and catcalls that their team may or may not have heard, and then they stopped.

It was the most impassioned thing anyone dressed in black and gold directed at the Carolina Hurricanes all evening.

Sidney Crosby assisted on Chris Kunitz's opening goal early in the first period and it was all downhill from there as the Hurricanes outplayed a hapless Penguins squad to the tune of a 4-1 final Tuesday in Pittsburgh.

Eric Staal, Elias Lindholm and Justin Faulk scored for Carolina, who staved off mathematical postseason elimination and delayed Pittsburgh's clinching the Metropolitan Division title with the victory.

Pittsburgh started the game well enough, outshooting the Hurricanes by a double-digit margin through the first half of the first period while carrying a 1-0 lead on Kunitz's 35th goal of the year.

After that, the wheels fell right off.

Carolina finished the contest not outshooting the Penguins -- Pittsburgh still won that stat by a 31-28 mark -- but certainly by playing smarter when the puck was in their possession.

Giveaways (or, turnovers) are hardly ever reliable as far as the box score goes, and teams typically track the criminally underreported stat on their own. Even by the NHL's soft margins, the Penguins had 13 recorded giveaways to Carolina's 3, a fine barometer for the team's struggles Tuesday evening.

"We all felt like the first 10 minutes we were carrying the play ... for whatever reason we got away from that," Crosby said following the loss. "Maybe we thought that came easy or we could get away with cheating.

"And it didn't work."

Pittsburgh has seen a lot of what doesn't work since the Olympic break, having gone 8-8-2 over that stretch while relinquishing the Eastern Conference points lead to Boston.

Injuries, of course, are the likeliest culprit. Pittsburgh is nearing 500 man-games lost for the season, and might be the only NHL team to have lost as many as 400 all year. With names like Evgeni Malkin, Paul Martin and Kris Letang still on the shelf (not to mention Pascal Dupuis, Tomas Vokoun, Marcel Goc and Chris Conner), Pittsburgh has the most right of any NHL team to point to injuries as a reason, not an excuse, for poor play.

Even at that, something has to change.

Coming off two straight victories over Columbus and Chicago, one could begin to think the Pens had turned things around following a poor stretch of play in the wake of the Sochi Olympics. The four clean points clinched a postseason berth, but the Penguins squeaked by Columbus in one instance while earning a win despite being outplayed for long stretches by the Chicago Blackhawks.

If problems were still apparent in those wins, they came to the fore against Carolina. Pittsburgh played one of its worst games of the season Tuesday, allowing themselves to be handily outplayed by a lesser opponent that came into the contest missing one of its top offensive contributors in Alex Semin.

If it were possible to bench an entire roster, the Penguins would want to give it serious thought following the Carolina contest. And while it's always treacherous to extrapolate too great an assumption from one match, games like the one played Tuesday are becoming less anomaly than general rule.

It doesn't take much digging to see why the Pens are dragging. Fatigue has to be creeping in. Players thrust into roles to which they aren't accustomed can't be glossed over, and the total lineup chaos the team has experienced has done nothing to help team chemistry.

Whatever it takes, Pittsburgh will look to do something to get themselves sparked heading into the postseason.

This team has made a habit of entering the dance on a tear. It's been suggested that they feel too good about themselves as the postseason begins, and a letdown has always followed.

Even given this stretch, no one is going to give the Penguins underdog status. They'll have to find something from within the room to spark a run of postseason-quality play.

If they don't, another playoff flameout is likely to follow.

Audio courtesy Jason Seidling & Pittsburgh Penguins.

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