PITTSBURGH-It was an eye-opening week for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
They were cruising along, winning consistently and waiting for the playoffs until they hit an unlikely roadblock wearing New York Islanders uniforms.
The Penguins lost both ends of a home-and-home series in three nights against the Islanders, a team that will be watching the Stanley Cup playoffs on television.
The Islanders smartly exploited some bad habits the Penguins had developed and came away with a pair of 5-3 victories.
The first ended the Penguins' 10-game winning streak on home ice, and was the Islanders first win in Pittsburgh since Dec. 2007.
To hear the Penguins tell it, though, the enemy wasn't really the Islanders.
"The last five or six games, we're giving up a lot of good, good chances and putting pressure on the goalies," Defenseman Brooks Orpik said. "Some nights you get away with it, and some nights you don't. You're not going to get away with that in the playoffs."
The Penguins had been getting away with it.
When they allowed goals, they had the firepower to outscore opponents. That didn't happen against the Islanders.
It is worth noting that defenseman Kris Letang sat out both games against the Islanders, and that's a factor, too.
Letang's ability to turn defense to offense in a blink is a tremendous asset to the Penguins. He can get a rush started quicker than almost anyone else in the NHL.
But it was more than Letang.
Nobody will pin blame on goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, but he didn't have two of his better games against the Islanders.
Fleury has bailed out the Penguins so many times that maybe his work is taken for granted. When he's just a bit off his game, the Penguins' mistakes don't get covered up.
Coach Dan Bylsma almost had a tone of "I told you so's." It's hard for a coach to get a message across about defensive neglect when the team continues to win games. The Penguins of the early 1990s had the same tendency.
Like Orpik, Bylsma said the deterioration of team defense didn't start the night the Islanders were in town.
"Thinking that we can turn most every play into an offensive chance and not taking care of the puck," Bylsma said. "That's turned into a lot of odd-man situations against us, and we saw that again [against the Islanders]."
What's the remedy? Like a lot of things, it's a matter of getting back to basics.
Focus on getting the puck out of the defensive zone first. Move the puck to the neutral zone, then worry about making plays. The Penguins have been giving in to the temptation to make too many long lead passes. That leads to turnovers.
Think defense first. The opposing team can't score without the puck. Do what's necessary to keep possession.
Tilt the ice. Play in the other team's end. Sustain pressure to wear out the opponent's defense and harass the goalie.
The two-game lapse probably cost the Penguins a chance to claim first place in the Eastern Conference. Instead, they're likely to spend the last week of the regular season focused on holding off the Philadelphia Flyers for fourth place and home-ice advantage in at least the opening round of the playoffs.
The problems are correctable. It just takes the commitment to put aside the desire to make flashy plays and work at a more basic game.
Offense comes from defense. The Penguins forgot that, and it's cost them lately.
The Penguins will hand out their usual team awards before the last regular-season game.
There are a variety of categories.
If they had one for player the coach is most proud of, it would go to forward Pascal Dupuis, who has established career bests for goals and points this season.
Dupuis' energy and physical style contribute to the Penguins' success, and he's one of the team's leaders.
Hard to remember that he was a healthy scratch for some of the playoff games when Bylsma first came to the Penguins in 2009.
"To be honest, it wasn't Pascal's best year in '09," Bylsma said. "He moved down the lineup, the fourth line and sometimes out of the lineup. He was one of the guys who came back after the Stanley Cup year and was a motivated guy. He was coming in real focused and real motivated. He had a spot in our lineup, but didn't know where it was. He had a great year in '10, really stepped it up and played strong. He played on a line with Sid Crosby."
Bylsma pointed out that he thought 20 goals would have been a great year for Dupuis. He currently has 24. He also has eight game-winning goals.
"?That's a great number," Bylsma said. "Eight is a career, let alone one season. He's been outstanding in a lot of different roles for us."
The week ahead
Better tighten the seat belt.
The Penguins opened and will close the week with home games against the Flyers,
You had yesterday's game and this Saturday afternoon.
In between, they have the last road game of the regular season (Tuesday in Boston) and a home date with the Rangers on Thursday.
These are all teams who could be playoff opponents, so the intensity level should be high.
Look for the Flyers to continue to play mind games with the Penguins, trying to goad them into taking penalties.
It's going to be a challenging week, but maybe that's exactly what the Penguins need heading into the playoffs.