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Time is up

Penguins’ last run not working out

AP photo Pittsburgh Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan, left, stands behind his bench during the first period of a game against the New York Islanders in Pittsburgh on Tuesday.

PITTSBURGH — Kyle Dubas wants to give Sidney Crosby and the rest of the Pittsburgh Penguins every opportunity to prove they’re worth investing in this season.

Time is running out.

While Dubas isn’t ready to commit to using his first trade deadline as Pittsburgh’s general manager/director of hockey operations to hit the reset button on the NHL’s oldest team, he also may not have a choice.

The Penguins are currently eight points out of playoff position with eight games left before the March 8 deadline and find themselves closer to next-to-last in the Eastern Conference than a wild-card spot. The star-laden power play is a mess. The goals that used to come so easily for so long have dried up, at least for everyone not named Crosby, who remains a wonder at 36.

And Dubas now finds himself fielding calls from other teams wondering who might be available, a stark contrast to most of the past two decades, when Pittsburgh’s front office would add at the deadline in hopes of chasing down another Stanley Cup.

Not so much in 2024. Yet Dubas, out of respect for the Stanley Cup-laden resumes of the team’s core three of Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, can’t quite bring himself to put a “for sale” sign up outside PPG Paints Arena.

Not yet anyway.

“I think if the group didn’t have the pedigree it has … I wouldn’t feel that they’re owed that same latitude,” Dubas said.

They are. For now at least. Though to show Dubas that they are still a playoff-caliber team they must do something that’s become increasingly rare over the past 18 months: playing winning hockey consistently.

“Yeah, obviously we’ve got to start grabbing points,” forward Bryan Rust said.

Instead of giving them away, something that’s been a trend of late. The Penguins are 2-4-1 since the All-Star break, including a 2-1 loss to Los Angeles on Sunday in which they let a third-period lead slip away and a 5-4 setback against the New York Islanders on Tuesday in which Pittsburgh erased a late two-goal deficit only to fall in overtime.

It’s been that way all season for a team that used to be fighting for seeding this time of year. Pittsburgh reached the playoffs 16 straight years between 2007-22 — winning three Cups in the process — before the streak was snapped last spring.

The Penguins’ collapse in the final weeks led to wholesale front-office changes that included firing general manager Ron Hextall and director of hockey operations Brian Burke and bringing in Dubas, who now has both titles and has been asked to thread a very delicate needle by retooling his team’s Hall of Fame-bound core without requiring a bottom-up rebuild.

Yet the moves Dubas made shortly after taking over last summer — namely trading for reigning Norris Trophy winner Erik Karlsson and bringing in veterans such as Reilly Smith and Lars Eller, among others — stacked the roster with more 30-somethings in a league far younger by comparison.

It’s led to sluggish play that has left Pittsburgh in the same position it’s been for a while: relying far too much on Crosby and injured linemate Jake Guentzel to do the heavy lifting.

The Penguins are 25th in scoring thanks in large part to a power play that’s ranked 30th and can go weeks without finding the back of the net. Dubas preached patience in December, stressing the next month or so would give him a better feel for which direction his club is heading in. If anything, Pittsburgh has been running in place, mixing spurts of solid play with stretches of malaise.

Coach Mike Sullivan continues to tinker with the lines with Guentzel out for several weeks with an upper-body injury. He put recently claimed forward Matt Phillips — who has all of one NHL goal — on the second line next to Malkin, who is 486 goals ahead of Phillips on the league’s leader board.

After grousing “the roster is the roster” following a blowout loss to Edmonton last February that hinted at the fall to come, Sullivan is striking a different tone this time around. He demurred when asked if the team needs to give Dubas a reason to add in the coming weeks.

“I don’t think that’s a question that I’m comfortable answering,” Sullivan said. “I believe in the group that we have.”

A group that insists it still believes in itself, even as doubters start contacting Dubas’ phone looking to make a deal.

“We know we have the potential here,” Karlsson said. “We know what we’re capable of. We haven’t found a way to do that, it’s on all of us.”

The clock is ticking.

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