PITTSBURGH - The losses are mounting, the confidence is sliding and rumours of a coaching change are swirling.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, one of the NHL's best teams the past two seasons, are going through what lesser teams tend to endure. The problem is they don't seem to know how to stop it.
This is a team that only seven months ago came within two victories of winning the Stanley Cup. It has two world-class players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin and an elite goaltender in Marc-Andre Fleury.
But the numbers don't lie: seven losses in eight games, a 7-15-1 record in the last 23, a losing record (20-19-4) when overtime losses are added.
Anything less than a repeat of their Stanley Cup run would be considered a disappointment for a team that has won 94 games over the past two seasons but, heading into Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia, the Penguins would miss the playoffs if they started this week.
"The purpose is to try and make the playoffs," coach Michel Therrien said Monday. "We're still in that. Yes, we're disappointed ... we have a lot of adversity. It's easy to get discouraged, but I know what I'm dealing with. They're a good group, good people."
The slump is spurring talk of a coaching switch, even though Therrien signed a three-year extension in the summer. His top players, including Crosby, insist the coach hasn't lost the team - yet when co-owner Mario Lemieux greeted Therrien as he came off the ice at practice Monday, some wondered if something was up.
"We talk a lot with Mario," Therrien said. "It's not the first time. When you get a chance to have a person like that around you, you're going to use him. It's good advice."
Therrien is convinced the Penguins have the talent, and the time, to save their season. What's uncertain is if a team whose top players are all in the early 20s has the temperament, composure and experience to do it.
Surely, this dramatic falloff can't be blamed entirely on star forward Marian Hossa's decision to sign with Detroit, veterans Ryan Malone and Gary Roberts leaving for Tampa Bay, or forwards Colby Armstrong and Erik Christensen being dealt to Atlanta late last season.
"This is a stretch that every team goes through during the season," forward Petr Sykora said. "It's gone on a little longer than we wanted. But there's nothing better than starting from the bottom to get on top again."
The Penguins did that two years ago, making the playoffs following four consecutive seasons in which they won 27 games or fewer. They hardly expected to have to do it again this season, especially after they started 12-4-3.
There are many possible reasons for their slump.
The fatigue of playing so many games in two seasons. The goaltending that doesn't rival that of the last two seasons. There has been little offence outside of Malkin and Crosby.
The Pens have also been unable to hold leads and have lost to teams they normally would put away, such as a 7-3 defeat to Toronto and a 6-1 loss to Florida, both on home ice.
On Thursday, they jumped out to a 3-0 lead in Nashville, only to lose 5-3.
"We're definitely not as confident as we were," defenceman Brooks Orpik said. "I guess when you're going through a losing streak like this, you're a little more fragile than usual. You can definitely sense it, the (dressing) room gets quiet and the bench gets quiet. Even in Nashville when we had a two-goal lead, it was going in that direction."
The slide is raising questions whether a captain as young as the 21-year-old Crosby can be effective at rallying a team in a slump.
Crosby isn't a screamer and won't get in a teammate's face and demand more. He leads by example but, of late, hasn't been playing at his usual level, and that can diminish a leader's impact.
"I think you have to lead in the same way, even when things are tough," Crosby said. "Things probably had to be said more the last couple of months than before. It's a challenge - I'm still learning. For the most part, I've tried to handle it the right way and I think we have good support in the room. It takes more than one guy talking to change things sometimes, and all the guys have been responsible and we all realize we have to be better."
The Penguins will get a good idea during the next week if they can make something out of their season. After playing the streaking Flyers, they face the Capitals, Ducks, Rangers and Hurricanes in a four-games-in-seven days home stand that winds up Jan. 20.
The further they fall down the standings, the more teams they must catch, and the more difficult the task becomes.
"You don't want to slide," Crosby said. "We don't want to play catch-up. That's a tough game to play. We do have a good team in here. It's the detail things that make a difference. It has to be more than a handful of guys. It's not always going to be Marc with a shutout or me with three goals or Geno (Malkin) with three goals."
Especially when Crosby has only four goals in 20 games, Malkin has only one goal in 11 and goaltender Fleury has lost five of six, allowing three goals or more five times.
"We're disappointed," Therrien said. "With this period that we're facing right now, it's going to help us be better. There's no doubt in my mind. Yes, it's a difficult time for everyone involved, but I don't mind being challenged."