The New York Rangers held a closed-door meeting after Wednesday’s deflating, 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins. Their veteran players spoke about the unacceptable play that has put them into a 1-3 hole in the series, and their belief that the Rangers can find another level to get back into it.
The Rangers are a better team than they’ve looked in the series so far and might, indeed, have another level – although, over the last several games, it’s looking increasingly like they don’t have much left in the tank after an exhausting, seven-game battle with the Philadelphia Flyers in Round 1 and an unkind schedule.
For the Penguins, however, things are just continuing to go right.
Pittsburgh opened the scoring Wednesday 2:31 into the contest with a no-look, spinning backhand from Evgeni Malkin. Down two games to one and coming off a rare day of rest in their recent schedule, it was hardly the start the Rangers wanted.
New York’s Carl Hagelin scored early in the second to tie the contest and give his team life. At the end of the period, Malkin took a penalty to give the Rangers a chance to go ahead on the man-advantage – but, once again, instead of the Rangers’ power play giving them momentum, it sapped the life out of them.
Already on an NHL-record streak that would grow to no goals in their last 36 power-play opportunities by the end of the game, the Rangers surrendered a shorthanded goal when a neutral-zone takeaway by Kris Letang, the speed of Brian Gibbons to rush up ice on a breakaway, and the hustle and anticipation of Brandon Sutter to follow up on the rebound combined to give Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead.
“I’m not too sure how it got turned over there, but [Gibbons] just took off,” Sutter said. “He went for a deke and it almost went in, and then I just tried to follow it up and put it in. It’s always big when you can kill a penalty and get one of those. Definitely a momentum-changer for us.”
Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist smashed his stick in frustration after that goal. The evening wouldn’t get much better for him, nor would he get much more help from his team.
Early in the third period, a tenacious forechecking effort by James Neal beat Rangers defenseman Marc Staal in a puck battle, then set up linemate Jussi Jokinen for a bad-angle shot that deflected in off of Staal. That extended Jokinen’s postseason scoring streak to eight games.
“Every time in these big games, every player wants to play at their best and wants to be that hero and I’m no different,” Jokinen said. “When you jump on the ice in those big moments you want to be opportunistic, you want to shoot the puck, you want to be that difference-maker. So far I’ve had a couple of those moments this spring, but I think we [are] four lines deep and we need lots of different guys to step up if we want to go all the way.”
With the 3-1 lead, Pittsburgh looked to be cruising to the win until a late goal by New York’s Mats Zuccarello set up a nailbiter of a finish for the last seven minutes of the contest. That momentum lasted for less than a minute, however, when the Penguins’ Chris Kunitz buried Malkin’s pass to reinstate his team’s two-goal cushion.
“We knew they were going to push; they’re a desperate team, and they were playing desperate in the last half of the game,” Sutter said. “They get that goal and, on the next shift, we get the two-goal lead right back. That’s huge. [After that] we definitely did a much better job of not sitting back.”
The Rangers’ scoring woes largely stemmed from the Penguins not allowing them to spend much time with the puck. Pittsburgh had the better of the puck possession Wednesday by far, outshooting New York, 27-15, with an additional 39 attempts to the Rangers’ 23. They won battles in the faceoff circle, taking control 63 percent of the time. And they won battles man-to-man, forcing New York into an astonishing 25 giveaways to Pittsburgh’s eight.
The Rangers got the speed, skill and physical presence of 23-year-old forward Chris Kreider back from injury for Game 4, while the Penguins saw 33-year-old veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik return. Orpik lasted just a period, however, suffering what the team said was a new injury on what appeared to be an awkward hit on Zuccarello, and the rest of Pittsburgh’s blueline had to step up with increased minutes, led by the pairing of Paul Martin, who played more than half the game at 30:05, and Letang, who played 27:56.
“It’s always tough in the playoffs to get a guy down, especially when we were excited to have Brooksie back, a big boost for us,” Martin said. “For [the defense] as a group, we managed to keep our shifts somewhat short. Our forwards helped a lot; they were smart with the puck, managed it well and it wasn’t always up to us to get the puck out. And Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] made the big saves when he had to.”
After winning three consecutive games in the series, including both at Madison Square Garden, the Penguins now head back to Pittsburgh with the chance to wrap it up in five games Friday and book a return trip to the Eastern Conference Final.
“We’ve still got some work to do to get to where we were last year,” Sutter said. “Right now, I think the biggest thing is probably our defensive-zone play. We didn’t like the way it went last game so, tonight, to play the way we did in our own end was crucial and that was the difference. That’s the effort we need going forward.”