CRANBERRY, Pa. -- Erik Karlsson had expectations for the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The defenseman played against them 48 times, 33 in the regular season and 15 in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, before the Penguins acquired him from the San Jose Sharks in a three-team trade involving the Montreal Canadiens on Aug. 6, 2023.

At the time, Karlsson said it provided his best chance at winning the Stanley Cup, something that had eluded him in nine seasons with the Ottawa Senators and another five with the Sharks.

In his 15th season, the 33-year-old is on a team that has scored 149 goals in 52 games, an average of 2.87 that ranks 26th in the NHL. It doesn't add up with what Karlsson observed from Penguins of the past.

“Not anything I've seen in my lifetime,” he said Monday.

Pittsburgh (24-21-7) is seventh in the Metropolitan Division, nine points behind the Detroit Red Wings for the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference. It's in danger of failing to qualify for a second straight season after losing four of five entering a matchup with the New York Islanders at PPG Paints Arena on Tuesday (7 p.m. ET; SN-PIT, MSGSN, SNW, SNO, SNE, SN1, TVAS).

"That's what we're in right now,” Karlsson said. “I think we're playing some good hockey, especially defensively, which was obviously a main focus for us at the start of the year. Now we just have to find that balance that I know that we have in here, where we are a dangerous team.

“We can create a lot and score a lot of goals as well and, simultaneously, play good defense. That's what we're trying to get to right now.”

PIT@PHI: Karlsson fires puck through traffic and scores

Karlsson has 38 points (seven goals, 31 assists), fourth on the Penguins behind Sidney Crosby (55), Jake Guentzel (52) and Evgeni Malkin (41). In 972 NHL games, he has 799 points (185 goals, 614 assists), one point from becoming the 18th defenseman in League history to reach 800. Brent Burns (868 points; 253 goals, 615 assists) of the Carolina Hurricanes is the only active defenseman to get there.

Karlsson could go further, though.

“I still think that there's another level to 'Karl' that we're trying to unlock here,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “I think it's an important element of us having success moving forward. But what you do see when you watch him every day is you gain more of an appreciation for how talented and how gifted he really is. I think he's a guy that brings that to the table every night.”

Last season with San Jose, Karlsson had 101 points (25 goals, 76 assists), winning the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman. This season, he has replaced Kris Letang at the point on the top unit of a struggling power play, ranked 30th in the League (13.7 percent).

Crosby, in his 19th NHL season, and Guentzel, currently on long-term injured reserve with an upper-body injury, have combined for 53 goals (Crosby, 31; Guentzel, 22), 36.6 percent of Pittsburgh’s total output. Malkin, third with 16 goals, has scored twice in 18 games since Dec. 31.

Karlsson, on a 13-game goal drought, has one in his past 32 games.

“We just have to find that little spark,” Karlsson said. “Like I said, we need to find a way to score more than one or two goals per game in this league where scoring is up as tremendously as it's been the last couple years. That's just the reality of it.”

And Karlsson could provide that spark, Letang said.

"I've played so much against him. I know what kind of player he is,” said Letang, who is second among Penguins defensemen with 31 points (four goals, 27 assists). “Obviously, we got to know each other more off the ice, spent a lot of time together. It's special to witness how good he is from up close.

“Like sometimes, you're watching the highlights or you play against him, it's a short sample. But the fact that every single night, I can watch him and see what he's capable of doing, it's special."

Letang still has plenty of time to watch Karlsson. The Penguins will play their final 30 games in the next 58 days.

It’s a packed schedule. And it provides the only path for Karlsson’s dream championship run.

“I think in the beginning of the year, we came in with the goal of winning the Stanley Cup, not only making the playoffs,” Karlsson said. “We knew that was going to be a task itself, but I think the ultimate goal here has been, and always will be, to win the Cup. I think that we have to find a way right now just to find a way to have the privilege to play for that.

“That's been our challenge this year, is finding a way to stay in a playoff spot. We know we have the potential in here. We know what we're capable of. We haven't found a way to do that. That's on all of us.”