Penguins host Stars in clash of inconsistent teams

PITTSBURGH — Two teams searching for consistency collide Thursday when the Pittsburgh Penguins host the Dallas Stars at PPG Paints Arena.

The Penguins (13-7-3) finished 7-5-2 in November with a 5-3 road loss Wednesday against the New York Islanders during which they squandered a three-goal comeback following two scoreless periods.

“We've got to bury our chances,” Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby said.

It's not just the lack of 60-minute efforts at times such as against the Islanders, or a fluctuation between wins and losses that makes Pittsburgh inconsistent — after all, the Penguins overall are winning more than losing. It has been, at times, wild swings between dominant games that might be expected from the defending Stanley Cup champions who returned their club nearly intact, and games in which they seem discombobulated and even disinterested and have let opponents set the pace and tone.

“It's hard for me to try to explain it,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said last week. “If I could, I could probably solve it.”

The Stars, meanwhile, are chugging along at .500 (9-9-6) but have lost two in a row and three of four as they hit the third contest of a four-game road trip.

“It's tough for us to string some wins together, but it's not the time to point fingers. It's not the time to get negative,” Patrick Sharp told the Dallas Morning News. “Now is the time to come together and dig deep and find a way to win.”

In addition to overtime losses piling up, Dallas is struggling to solidify a lineup on defense. With eight defensemen — nine when Johnny Oduya returns from a lower-body injury — coach Lindy Ruff has been sitting out different players nearly every game.

Dan Hamhuis and Stephen Johns played Tuesday after being scratched a game earlier while John Klingberg and Patrik Nemeth sat, and Ruff liked the performance of his defense despite a 3-1 loss at Detroit, but still isn't set on a defensive lineup. He said he would re-evaluate before deciding which six defensemen will play against Pittsburgh.

The Stars met but did not skate Wednesday. Ruff, contrary to Sharp's assessment, decided it was time to point fingers — at himself.

“I have to do a better job,” Ruff told the Morning News. “I have to hold them more accountable. I've let too many guys off the hook.”

It seems likely that Dallas will go with goaltender Antti Niemi in net. Pittsburgh's Marc-Andre Fleury probably will start after Matt Murray played Wednesday.

Fleury started well but has struggled since Murray returned from a broken hand, with no wins in his past five starts. On the season, Fleury is 6-5-3 with a 3.38 goals-against average and .901 save percentage. There is widespread belief that the Penguins have played better in front of Murray than in front of Fleury.

“I don't think his record, the way it is, it all falls on his shoulders,” Sullivan said. “It's a collective effort on both sides, both when we win and when we lose. Marc has fallen victim of some tough bounces. He's just got to continue to work through it and keep working on his game.”

Despite some consistency issues for both clubs, the game matches two of the league's best offensive talents.

Dallas' Tyler Seguin has 24 points, ranking him fourth in the NHL, although his minus-9 rating is the worst of anyone among the top 50 in scoring.

Crosby leads the NHL with 15 goals in only 17 games after missing the start of the season because of a concussion.