On paper, the Rangers-Penguins series looks like a mismatch, pitting this year’s Presidents’ Trophy winner against a club that was in danger of missing the playoffs on the last day of the regular season and continues to play without three of its top six defensemen.

For five of six periods so far, however, Pittsburgh has found a way to compete with the league’s top team. And Saturday, on the strength of a three-goal second period, strong special teams and a motivated captain, the Penguins emerged from Madison Square Garden with a 4-3 win, seizing home-ice advantage and bringing a tied series home to Pittsburgh.

“It’s nice to get rewarded,” Sidney Crosby said. “Sometimes in the playoffs, you play well and you don’t get the results you want. I thought we continued from the end of the last game; I thought we were more aggressive and improved that here tonight.”

The Penguins’ aggressive mentality sometimes crossed the line, with the regular season’s most penalized team giving New York seven power play opportunities.

“It’s hard to argue; I think we hit them in the face with a couple sticks, broke a stick,” Crosby said. “I don’t think they were undisciplined penalties, I don’t think guys lost their cool or focus, but we have to be intense but find a way to make sure we stay out of the box.”

“We’ve got to look at the game; we’ve got to look at how we’re getting ourselves in penalty trouble,” Johnston said. “Is it that we’re not moving our feet, do we get a stick in there, what are some common trends? We’ve got to break that for sure. You just can’t give a team that many power plays; you give them early momentum, like we have in both games.”

Pittsburgh’s penalty kill kept them from regretting those lapses in judgment too much, though, denying six of New York’s seven chances with the man-advantage and giving the Penguins some momentum of their own.

“I think [the PK] was huge tonight,” said forward Maxim Lapierre. “I think the main thing was [that] we got some big goals from some guys after the kills, and this is where we got our momentum.”

Indeed, the offensively challenged Pittsburgh squad produced three goals in a 8:45 span of the second period – all of them shortly after penalty kills – to take a 3-1 lead. Two came from Crosby, who, along with fellow star center Evgeni Malkin, was criticized in post-Game 1 media coverage for his offensive struggles in recent postseasons.

“Special players like that, they always find a way to do something nice,” Lapierre said. “Sid always comes to the rink and he works hard and he doesn’t listen to what’s been said about him or the complaints. He’s a professional, works hard, doesn’t say a word and, when it’s time to do something big like tonight, he does it.”

Things started to even up in the third period when, down by two, the Rangers showed frustration and the Penguins were awarded three of their four power plays. And Pittsburgh exploited the opportunity, with Chris Kunitz scoring the power-play goal that ended up being the game winner. Kunitz, who’s also endured his share of criticism recently, was promoted to the top line for most of the game, reuniting him with longtime linemate Crosby.

“We’re still searching for good offensive output without giving up anything defensively,” said head coach Mike Johnston. “Obviously a guy to put with Sid is Kuni because he’s played with him before; there’s some comfort there. I thought Kuni had a good game overall, and [his] second power-play unit was really effective for us, had a lot of pressure.”

Most importantly, the Penguins got off to a much better start than in Game 1, where they let up a goal just 28 seconds in and looked overmatched through 20 minutes, falling into a 2-0 hole that proved too deep to overcome.

“We said before the game, our start cannot be worse than the last game,” Lapierre said. “Even though we were down 1-0 [again in Game 2], we thought we were playing really well. We stuck with the game plan and it paid off.”

Now the series shifts to Pittsburgh with the home team looking to continue to defy expectations.

“It’s going to be a lot of the same,” said center Brandon Sutter, who opened the Penguins’ scoring on the power play and helped lead the penalty kill. “They’re a really disciplined team, very structured, and they don’t really change much, home or away. It’s definitely going to be tight.”

“Playoff hockey’s all about momentum shifts,” Johnston said. “There’s momentum shifts in games, and from game to game. Our guys now, the game’s over [and] they’ve got to park it, same as they did two nights ago. You clean the slate and proceed forward.”

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