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Pittsburgh — The Red Wings wanted to get their better defensive performance back in an important game against another playoff contender in the Eastern Conference on Thursday.

Instead, for a third consecutive game, they played terrible defense, losing to the Penguins, 6-3.

“Defensively, as a five-unit, we weren’t even close,” Jeff Blashill said. “We can’t play that way and have long-term success.”

BOX SCORE: Penguins 6, Red Wings 3

Blashill said part of it may be the loss of a mental edge, which had allowed the Wings to play mostly good defense for much of the season. With an offense that has sputtered at times, the team defense and solid goaltending had saved them.

“I thought we were way too loose,” Blashill said. “We gave up way too many chances.”

The Wings now have yielded 15 goals in the past nine periods.

Petr Mrazek, who has yielded 10 goals in less than six periods, was replaced by Jimmy Howard in the third.

“Give them credit, they’ve got talent,” forward Brad Richards said after the game.

“But I think we weren’t as sharp as we usually are, mentally – and detailed. Usually when that happens, and they are (sharp) they’re going to get chances. And they buried them.”

The Penguins got a two goals from unusual sources: Ben Lovejoy scored his first in 34 games, and Scott Wilson got his first in the NHL.

And they also got them from some of their scorers. Phil Kessel scored twice, Matt Cullen once, and Sidney Crosby added an empty net goal.

The Red Wings got goals from Tomas Jurco, his fourth of the season, and Dylan Larkin added his 19th — a product, once again, of his enormous speed.

It was Larkin’s first goal in six games.

Henrik Zetterberg scored his 12th of the season, when Pavel Datsyuk, seemingly as shifty as ever, took care of two Penguins defenders at center ice and, effectively, two more in the offensive zone, before feeding Justin Abdelkader, who put it cross ice to Zetterberg.

The Wings also had plenty of unconverted chances. But whenever they evened the score, the Penguins struck back.

“Playing a team like this who are real offensive and really leaving their guys early from their own end, you have to play a little more defensively and a little more poised,” Zetterberg said. “We didn’t do that early.

“They got some odd-man rushes right away, and kind of got us a little back on our heels. It’s tough to play like that, against a team like this.”

The Penguins opened the scoring at 9:56 of the first.

From far in the circle to Mrazek’s left, Lovejoy let a wrist shot go that was headed to the goalie’s right and seemed to have little chance of scoring. But on the way, it struck the retreating Darren Helm squarely near his midsection, perhaps off his stick.

The shot deflected at a 45-degree angle toward Mrazek and in. Anticipating the shot to his right, not the deflection, Mrazek stood little chance.

A few minutes later, Andreas Athanasiou gained the Penguins blue line with considerable speed, and passed to Gustav Nyquist at the sideboards, about halfway into the zone. Nyquist delivered a nifty pass right to Jurco’s wheelhouse.

Jurco fired a blistering wrist shot and beat Marc-Andre Fleury cleanly from about 30 feet.

The lead lasted about three minutes, when poor defensive structure around Mrazek forced the Wings to chase the play. That is when Cullen scored his seventh of the season.

The Wings struck quickly in the second period to tie.

Carrying terrific speed, Larkin took advantage of a broken play. He gathered a puck bouncing off Penguins defenders 20 feet in front of Fleury and continued his pace, planting a sharp backhand shot behind the goalie, as he sped past.

But, again, the tie lasted only 43 seconds. Kessel would score, and then score again.

gregg.krupa@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/greggkrupa

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