PITTSBURGH – The Pittsburgh Penguins are heading to the playoffs for an eighth straight year.
Barring an epic collapse, a Metropolitan Division title is all but clinched.
What happens after that, however, is anybody’s guess.
Dominant in the beginning but dismal at the end, the Penguins let a chance to clinch their second straight division crown slip away in a 4-1 loss to Carolina Tuesday night that left Pittsburgh just 8-8-2 since returning from the Olympic break.
Not exactly the kind of momentum a Stanley Cup contender wants to bring into the final days of the regular season.
“If you’re not 100 percent, they can expose you and make you look pretty silly,” Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik said. “That’s what happened here tonight.”
Carolina rookie Elias Lindholm scored twice for the first multi-goal game of his career, Eric Staal and Justin Faulk also scored while Jeff Skinner added two assists. Anton Khudobin stopped 30 shots as the Hurricanes avoided being swept in the season series by Pittsburgh for the first time in 18 years.
“I thought we kept it simple and kind of slowly frustrated them as it went on and it was a win we needed,” Staal said.
Chris Kunitz scored his 35th goal to give Pittsburgh an early lead, but the Penguins crumbled over the final two periods.
Sidney Crosby picked up an assist to push his NHL-leading point total to 100, but the Penguins appeared to lose interest after failing to bury the Hurricanes during a frenetic opening barrage in which they appeared ready to run Carolina out of the arena.
“We all felt like the first 10 minutes we were carrying the play ... for whatever reason we got away from that,” Crosby said. “Maybe we thought that came easy or we could get away with cheating. And it didn’t work.”
No, it didn’t.
Marc-Andre Fleury made 24 saves, but received little help playing behind a sloppy defense. The Penguins turned it over 13 times, including a series of miscues the Hurricanes were only too happy to turn into goals.
“I think we started mismanaging the puck and started having turnovers in the neutral zone,” Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins appeared to right the enigmatic final third of their season with a spirited 4-1 victory over Chicago on Sunday night.
Two days later, the sense of urgency evaporated when the Hurricanes — who are about to miss the playoffs for the fifth straight year — failed to roll over.
Pittsburgh recorded 12 of the first 14 shots, including Kunitz’s wrist shot from the left circle that Khudobin never saw. Crosby picked up the secondary assist to lift his point total to the century mark for the fifth time in his career, drawing a roar from the usual sellout crowd at Consol Energy Center.
It had all the makings of a blowout.
One developed, just not the one the Penguins were expecting.
Carolina steadied itself late in the first, evening the game on a knuckling slap shot by Faulk that gave the Hurricanes the confidence boost they needed to get back in it. The Penguins’ malaise did the rest.
“That goal from (Faulk) really evens it up and then we kind of just took a deep breath, got our legs going better and then I thought we just started moving better and playing a much smarter game,” Carolina coach Kirk Muller said.
Lindholm put Carolina in front to stay 9:24 into the second with a power-play goal that included a pretty feed from Skinner, who threaded a pass between Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta’s legs right to Lindholm’s stick.
Fleury never had a chance. The goaltender was equally helpless five minutes later when a turnover by teammate Deryk Engelland handed Skinner and Lindholm a breakaway that Lindholm converted into the first multi-goal game of his brief career.
Any late push by the Penguins ended when Staal’s tip-in eluded Fleury with just over 8 minutes left.
Instead of skating off the ice with their fourth division title since Crosby’s arrival in 2005, Pittsburgh trudged to the locker room wondering when the consistency that propelled them to the top of the Eastern Conference before the Olympic break will return.
“There’s not much good to take out of it,” Crosby said. “So we’ve just got to make sure we respond the next game.”
NOTES: Carolina played without F Alexander Semin, who was scratched due to an illness. ... The Hurricanes return home to face Dallas on Thursday. ... The Penguins fell to 45-8-4 this season when Crosby scores a point.