By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — It was too little, too late for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The New York Rangers suffocated the seemingly punchless Penguins defensively for two-and-a-half periods, and while Pittsburgh rebounded with a goal midway through the third and a ferocious rally, it couldn’t complete the comeback, falling, 2-1, during Game 3 of its Eastern Conference First Round playoff series Monday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“We need to play a full 60 (minutes) the way we finished the third,” Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby said. “Every play matters in the playoffs. Our desperation level was much higher in the third and we need to find that level of desperation for the entire game.”
Carl Hagelin scored in the first and Chris Kreider in the second, both their first of the playoffs for the Rangers, who hung on to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series. The Rangers, who finished with the NHL’s best road record at 28-11-2, have won 11 straight Game 3s away from home since 1992. They’ll try again 7 p.m. Wednesday as the series stays in Pittsburgh for Game 4.
“You come into this building and you know they’re going to play well,” Hagelin said. “It’s a great atmosphere, but we found a way. We wanted this game.”
Henrik Lundqvist only saw 11 shots through two periods, but he was sharp and his defense strong in front as Pittsburgh outshot the Rangers 13-7 in the third period. He finished with 23 saves.
Patric Hornqvist scored the lone Penguins’ goal — his first of the playoffs — and gave his team much-needed life when he cut the Rangers’ lead to one with 6:48 to play. Lundqvist stopped an initial point shot from Ian Cole, but Hornqvist found the rebound, putting Pittsburgh on the board.
The sellout crowd came to life as Pittsburgh buzzed the Rangers’ end desperately seeking the tying goal, but it never came as New York escaped with the series lead. Marc-Andre Fleury gave his team a chance at the comeback, stopping 24 shots.
“The crowd was going…everything was going for us,” Hornqvist said. “We need to build on that and come out that way in the next game.”
Pittsburgh stumbled down the stretch of the regular season, capturing the final playoff spot and damping enthusiasm for a team that is used to lofty expectations after winning the Stanley Cup in 2009.
But the Penguins, with just four series victories in the last five years, came away with a split at Madison Square Garden, taking a game on the road against the NHL’s best regular season team. They held the Rangers off the scoreboard in the final two periods of Game 1 and got two goals from Crosby, three points from Chris Kunitz and a pair of power play tallies during a 4-3 victory on Saturday.
Those feelings were squashed through two-and-a-half periods as Pittsburgh registered its first shot nearly 14 minutes into the game and just 11 through two periods. Crosby had the best chances, hitting the post to the right of Lundqvist from the left circle and again in the third when the Rangers’ goaltender made a sprawling right pad save as the Penguins’ captain cut across the crease.
“Whether it was getting on the forecheck or getting out of our end a little quicker, we didn’t execute very well and obviously that led into not generating much,” Crosby said.
Discipline was an issue for the Penguins through two games, as 12 penalties were called on Pittsburgh compared to just five for the Rangers. But not on Monday as penalties were nearly even, though questionable non-calls factored into both Rangers’ goals.
“Those are always tough situations for a coach to react to, ‘well this could’ve been called and that could’ve been called,” Johnston said. “But I like to see those battles. It’s playoff time and the refs make their decisions.”
The Rangers struck first at 8:43 of the opening period, catching Pittsburgh on a bad line change. Hagelin took advantage, pulling in a stretch pass from Keith Yandle behind the defense, beating Fleury between the pads with a slap shot on a breakaway.
Kreider increased the Rangers’ lead at 11:07 of the second period started on Marc Staal’s slap shot from the point. The shot caromed off the end boards and Kreider was there to one-time it from the air, putting New York ahead, 2-0.
It proved to be just enough for the Rangers, who were able to hang on down the stretch after the Penguins came to life.
“They were in our face for the first two periods,” Hornqvist said. “We didn’t have much time and space and we didn’t get the puck to the net either. We have to be better in the first two periods. We have to have short-term memory and build from the third period.”
NOTES: Evgeni Malkin failed to register a shot in a home playoff game for the first time in his career. … New York has won 16 of its last 19 road games. … Monday was the first Game 3 in Consol Energy Center history. … Lundqvist won his 45th career playoff game, tying Tony Esposito and Jonathan Quick for 20th all-time.