NHL

Struggling Senators have work cut out against Penguins

PITTSBURGH -- It might be mid-February, but the Pittsburgh Penguins can feel spring -- which means playoffs -- right around the corner.

Going into a game Tuesday night against the Ottawa Senators (19-26-9), the Penguins (31-22-4) already have been winning and now feel as though they are playing a style conducive to the stretch run. They point to their 1-0-1 weekend trip to Dallas and St. Louis, when they gave up a total of four regulation goals, as proof.

"This time of year, I think it's important to learn how to win games like that -- closer to the end, and being able to take advantage of your opportunities," Pittsburgh goaltender Matt Murray said Monday. "As we saw those last two games, there's not much (room on the) ice out there, teams are checking a lot harder and it's maybe not as risky of a game. It's more of a tight-checking game. If we're going to get to where we want to be, we've got to learn how to win those games."

The Penguins also need to win, period, in the tight Metropolitan Division. Despite going 12-4-1 since the start of the calendar year, they remain four points behind first-place Washington and five points ahead of Carolina, which sits in the second wild-card spot in the East.

"It's great to score goals, but you want to make sure you're keeping your goals against down," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said. "We did a pretty good job of that in the two games. (Murray) definitely did make some saves, but I think we were pretty committed defensively. You're going to give up chances sometimes but as long as the mentality is that you're going to defend first, then we're going to create offense.

"We get points wherever we can. We had a good road trip. We want to follow that up."

The Penguins are opening a three-game homestand and have won eight straight at home.

Against Ottawa at PPG Paints Arena, Pittsburgh has won four in a row, is 6-0-1 in the past seven meetings and 9-1-1 since the building opened in 2010.

The Senators have struggled to win anywhere, against anyone. They sit behind every team except Buffalo in the East -- and the Senators are only five points up on the Sabres.

So instead of looking ahead to the postseason, Ottawa is eyeing the NHL trade deadline in less than two weeks and wondering if the team will be broken up.

"Anytime you're closing in on the deadline and you're not in a good situation as a group, there's always those thoughts in the back of your head," defenseman Mark Borowiecki told the Ottawa Sun.

Senators coach Guy Boucher wishes that wasn't the case.

"Here's the reality about the NHL: (The trade deadline) is a constant distraction from Day One until the end of the year," he said. "You've got to be able to live with it, and there's days that are easier than others.

"There are things that are said out there that sometimes you don't hear so they're easy, or sometimes you hear them indirectly and all that. It's just part of it. You don't just have to live with it; you've got to seize the opportunity to be where you are every day and do well. Whether the date is coming, for us, it doesn't change what we've got to do. That's our everyday focus."

Injured Ottawa centers Nate Thompson (lower body) and Gabriel Dumont (undisclosed) skated Monday but are not expected to return Tuesday.

Updated February 12, 2018