By Dan Scifo
From the Point contributor
PITTSBURGH – The frustration has reached a boiling point for captain Sidney Crosby and the struggling Pittsburgh Penguins.
Crosby was frustrated enough to drop his gloves for just the seventh time in his career, but counterpart – and recent nemesis – Brandon Dubinsky got the last laugh.
The Penguins’ punchless power play, a sore spot in recent weeks, contributed to the game-winner for Columbus as Dubinsky’s short-handed goal led the Blue Jackets to a 2-1 victory Thursday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“The inconsistency in the team is the thing that concerns me,” Penguins’ coach Mike Johnston said. “The details in our game have to be there on a nightly basis and they aren’t right now.
“We can’t have those types of inconsistencies in our game.”
The eventual game-winner started with a Blake Comeau turnover at center ice, picked up by Matt Calvert, who drove to the net along the left wing. Penguins’ goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury poked the puck off Calvert’s stick, but Comeau collided with Fleury and Dubinsky picked up the rebound, sliding it inside the post for the easy goal.
It was that kind of night for the Penguins.
Crosby, held without a point in six of his last nine games, looked to the heavens in frustration early in the second period after Curtis McElhinney robbed him with a glove save from the top of the crease. He later tangled with Dubinsky – his antagonist from last year’s first-round playoff series – at 5:50 of the second period. It was Crosby’s seventh career fight in 604 games, second since suffering a career-threatening concussion, and first since meeting Flyers’ captain Claude Giroux, April 15, 2012 in the playoffs.
The battle brought the sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center to life, but the Penguins couldn’t capitalize.
“When a top player drops his gloves, it’s an emotional fight,” Johnston said. “Sid showing that type of emotion, I think is positive. The fight with Sid was near the end of the period, but it should’ve been a big rallying point.”
Dubinsky delivered a hit in the corner, Crosby put him in a headlock and drove him to the ice. The two briefly rose to their feet before the gloves flew off, Crosby landing several blows before he was taken down.
“I wasn’t here, but I know what happened in the playoff series,” Johnston said. “They had a long battle, Dubinsky and Sid and I think that was part of the carryover tonight.”
Evgeni Malkin scored his 22nd goal of the year for the Penguins, who dropped their third straight, suffering their fourth loss in six games. Worse yet, the Penguins fell to 7-11-4 against division opponents with just two wins in 11 games against the front-running Islanders, Rangers and Capitals, sliding to fourth in the Metropolitan after Thursday’s loss.
“We have to raise our level against divisional opponents,” Crosby said. “They seem to, so we have to find a way to do that.
“There have been too many times where we’ve played and haven’t been happy with our game.”
Scott Hartnell, who pestered the Penguins for years while playing with the Flyers, scored his 14th of the season and McElhinney – in for the injured Sergei Bobrovsky – stopped 29 shots for his first career win against Pittsburgh.
The Penguins successfully killed a Blue Jackets’ 5-on-3 power play midway through the third, but couldn’t use it as a rallying point either.
Fleury turned aside Blue Jackets’ D James Wisniewski’s one-time attempt with a right pad save and Cam Atkinson missed an open net, sliding a shot through the crease.
“The five-on-three killers did an outstanding job,” Johnston said. “That should’ve brought out a bigger response.”
It was just another chapter to the Penguins’ current woes as Pittsburgh is now 0-for-20 on the power play and still hasn’t scored in February, last finding the back of the net Jan. 30 against New Jersey.
“There are times we have great looks and great chances and don’t score and then there are times when we struggle to get into the zone, make one good play and score, and everything’s good with the power play,” Crosby said. “We just have to find a way to score.”
The Penguins appeared lifeless during the first period as Columbus thoroughly outplayed Pittsburgh and dictated the play.
The Blue Jackets struck first too, despite Fleury’s attempts to keep it close.
The Penguins were unable to clear the zone, as Alexander Wennberg kept the puck in along the end boards and fed Hartnell, who stopped in front of the net, putting a slick backhand-to-forehand deke past Fleury’s outstretched pad.
Malkin tied it at 8:58 of the second period on a play started by Penguins’ D Paul Martin.
Martin, during a rush along the right-wing boards, shrugged off a check from Blue Jackets’ D Kevin Connauton and threw a bad-angle shot at McElhinney, which popped in front to Malkin, who slammed it home.
It ultimately wasn’t enough as the sliding Penguins suffered another loss.
“It’s frustrating,” Crosby said. “When you’re struggling, you tend to force it a little bit and that’s normal. It’s something we have to fix. We have time, but we have to fix it.”
NOTES: Crosby’s fight was his first in the regular season since battling former teammate Matt Niskanen Nov. 3, 2010 when he played for Dallas. … Dubinsky’s goal was the seventh short-handed allowed by Pittsburgh. … It was the Penguins’ first regulation loss vs. Columbus since Feb. 8, 2011 and second since Oct. 21, 2006. … Crosby’s 10-game point streak against Columbus came to an end. … The Penguins lost for the first time with Crosby and Malkin in the lineup. … Fleury allowed six goals in his last six starts but lost three of them. … The Penguins’ nine-game power-play drought matches the longest in team history, an 0-for-38 swing in 1967.