Canadiens-Penguins Preview

TOM CASTRO (STATS Senior Editor)
The Associated Press

The return of several key players wasn't enough to help the Pittsburgh Penguins avoid an ugly loss their last time out, suffering through another rough defensive performance despite a mostly successful recent stretch of games.

They'll try again to tighten it up in their own end when they look to extend their home winning streak against the Montreal Canadiens to five on Wednesday night.

The Eastern Conference-leading Penguins (34-13-2) came into Monday's matchup with Florida on a 5-0-1 run, but were routed 5-1 in one of their most lopsided defeats of the season. Pittsburgh was outscored 3-1 in the third period and lost despite holding a 36-28 overall edge in shots.

The Penguins suffered their first regulation loss of 2014, one that perhaps wasn't all that surprising. Pittsburgh has given up four or more goals four times in seven games in the new year.

''We were just awful,'' said defenseman Matt Niskanen, who scored Monday and has two goals and three assists in a four-game point streak. ''Bad execution. Bad work ethic. We just weren't hungry enough to win the loose puck battle and they just beat the (stuffing) out of us.''

Defenseman Paul Martin played 20 minutes in his return from a broken leg - clearing the way for him to play for Team USA in the Olympics - and forwards James Neal, Chuck Kobasew and Jayson Megna also were back from injuries. The re-fortified lineup, however, seemed to have little effect.

''We're assimilating players back into our lineup ... but that's not a new challenge for this group,'' coach Dan Bylsma said. ''It's not a new challenge for our team.''

Neither is winning at Pittsburgh for the Canadiens. Montreal (27-17-5) has gone 0-3-1 in the last four meetings there and 2-6-1 in the past nine.

The Canadiens did end a three-game overall losing streak in the series in the first matchup of the season, winning 3-2 on Nov. 23. Max Pacioretty scored twice for Montreal while Neal had two goals for the Penguins.

Pacioretty extended his point streak to four games (two goals, two assists) with an assist at Toronto on Saturday, but the Canadiens continued their inconsistent play with a 5-3 loss. Montreal has alternated wins and losses in its last eight games, and it's won two in a row once in its previous 18.

''We're a team that was pushing the pace and we were skating well,'' coach Michel Therrien said. ''Individual mistakes cost games. That's where it's disappointing. We give goals. They're not even supposed to be scoring chances.''

Pacioretty has five goals and three assists in his last seven against the Penguins.

Montreal's Carey Price has struggled in his last three starts, giving up 11 goals in going 1-2-0, but he'll be in net Wednesday. Price has posted a 4.21 goals-against average in his last four road games despite going 2-1-1, though he did end a three-game losing streak to Pittsburgh by making 29 saves Nov. 23.

The Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury hasn't been at his best either of late, posting a 3.55 GAA in his last five starts. He's given up seven goals in his past two starts against the Canadiens.