Inconsistent Penguins host banged-up Blue Jackets

PITTSBURGH — Will the real Pittsburgh Penguins please stand up? Or show up?

With inconsistency perhaps the most consistent element of the Penguins’ season coming off two straight Stanley Cups, the team talked widely of doing some soul searching during the NHL’s holiday break, which for them ends Wednesday night with a visit from the Columbus Blue Jackets at PPG Paints Arena.

Pittsburgh (18-16-3) sits just one point out of last place in the Metropolitan Division and below the playoff line after a 3-6 stretch.

“We show signs of it where we put some games together where we’re playing to the identity that this group has had success with, but we haven’t done it nearly consistently enough this year,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said going into the break.

“It’s probably a good opportunity for all us to get away from the game a little bit, enjoy our families and reflect on where we’re at and how we’re going to improve.”

Pittsburgh ranks 18th with 2.78 goals-per-game despite a lineup top-heavy with offensive stars. Defensively, the Penguins are allowing 3.16 goals-per-game, worse than all but eight clubs.

“We’ve got to look at ourselves,” Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin said. “We know that we can bring (it) better consistently. That’s something we need to address.

“We know it’s hard to win from years past. It hasn’t been all roses. It’s been tough. It’s tough to make the playoffs. We can’t let ourselves sink after one win.”

That’s what happened before the break. Pittsburgh won an emotionally charged game against the Blue Jackets, 3-2 in a shootout on Thursday and talked of building on that. Instead came Saturday’s flat, mistake-prone 4-0 loss to Anaheim that was a microcosm of all that has gone wrong in so many games — slow start, lapses, trouble scoring.

“You feel like you get really good (scoring) chances and they don’t go in, and every mistake you make ends up in the back of your net,” Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. “We’ve got to find a way to get out of that trend and put some wins together.”

Columbus (22-13-2) makes a quick return to Pittsburgh in a much better place in the tight division standings — tied for second — but the team is dealing with some major injuries.

The Blue Jackets came back from a couple mid-December 7-2 losses to Edmonton and Boston to go 2-0-1 heading into the break, including the shootout loss in Pittsburgh and Saturday’s 2-1 shootout win over Philadelphia.

“I’m happy for them,” Columbus coach John Tortorella said of the players. “They’re the ones that have to go through it after a game like Boston. That’s one thing that’s great about our league, is that we have some great athletes and proud people. They have to eat it, and I’m glad they’ve answered the right way, in battling to get some points here before (the break).”

In addition to facing a Pittsburgh team with more to prove, the Blue Jackets will be further short-handed.

Center Alexander Wennberg, who left the game against the Penguins in the third period and sat out Saturday, is out four to six weeks because of a lower-body injury. The time frame is the same for forward Cam Atkinson. Columbus announced Tuesday that Atkinson has a broken right foot.

Those two join defensemen Zach Werenski and Ryan Murray and center Brandon Dubinsky on the shelf.

“We just have to deal with it,” Blue Jackets general manager Jarmo Kekalainen told about the injuries. “It’s going to be a great test for our depth, and a great opportunity for some other guys to play more significant roles right now, and we’ll just have to deal with it.”

The Blue Jackets are expected to promote from among their prospects to fill the gaps rather than make trades.

“It’s not easy to find reinforcements from outside, when you have to give up something to get something,” Kekalainen said. “We’re not going to go crazy, mortgaging our future for something that could take a month or six weeks to get through.”