NHL Hockey

Struggling Penguins face off against Lightning

Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (87) gets ready to take the face-off against the Toronto Maple Leafs during the first period of an NHL hockey game, Saturday, Feb. 2, 2019 in Toronto. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

It's a points-grab time of the season, according to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Pittsburgh Penguins, who meet Saturday at Amalie Arena.

Tampa Bay (39-11-4) leads the NHL with 82 points, but the feel of the stretch drive already is creeping in after two straight losses -- even though the Lightning picked up a point in each of those games by going to a shootout against Vegas and overtime against St. Louis.

"The end of the season seems closer in our minds as players and teams," defenseman Ryan McDonagh told the Tampa Bay Times. "You try to get as many points as you can, and every opponent we're facing is still trying to get into the playoffs. And that includes us."

Of course, Tampa Bay's opponents feel the same way.

"You're getting teams' best every night because you're almost in those do-or-die situations," Lightning coach Jon Cooper said.

Tampa Bay goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy has lost two straight starts for the first time this season. He received just two total goals of support in those games.

Offense has been sparse for the Lightning, which has six goals in its past four games and has scored three or more goals in just two of its past nine games.

Nikita Kucherov's NHL scoring lead fell to one point following Thursday's loss to St. Louis. He has gone nine games without a goal.

Pittsburgh (28-19-7) has lost three straight and eight of 13 since an eight-game winning streak. That dropped the Penguins to the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.

"We're concerned with ourselves right now," winger Bryan Rust told The Athletic. "We're up and down."

One of Pittsburgh's two wins in its past seven games came against Tampa Bay, 4-2 on Jan. 30 at home.

Since then, the Penguins have struggled. They made a lineup-changing trade, acquiring forwards Nick Bjugstad and Jared McCann from Florida, and have been shuffling line combinations and defensive pairings, even breaking up the top defensive pairing of Kris Letang and Brian Dumoulin this week.

That means Pittsburgh, despite being into February and having a core of players remaining from its Stanley Cup wins in 2016 and '17, is still searching for its identity.

"I think we're working toward it," team captain and leading scorer Sidney Crosby said. "I think it's something that we all have in the back of our mind. We want to make sure we're playing the same way every night."

Crosby on Saturday will play in his 916th game, passing Mario Lemieux to set a franchise record.

The Penguins could get help in the form of players returning from injury. Defenseman Justin Schultz, out since mid-October because of a broken leg, and goaltender Matt Murray, who has missed one game because of an upper-body injury, appear the closest to playing. Center Evgeni Malkin and winger Zach Aston-Reese are considered to be not far behind.

Given all of that, Pittsburgh badly needs points.

"Yeah, we do," coach Mike Sullivan said after the Penguins rallied Thursday at Florida to force overtime but lost 3-2, picking up one point. "And it's a big point. And that's what I told the (players) afterward. It's a big point."

--Field Level Media

Updated February 9, 2019

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