When the Penguins and New York Rangers clashed at CONSOL Energy Center on Friday night, it was a definitive case of two teams headed in opposite directions. While the streaking Rangers (8-1 in their last nine) had scaled to the top of the overall standings, the skidding Pens (7-7 since Nov. 29) were struggling to keep pace in the race for Atlantic Division supremacy.
Thanks to a quirk in the schedule that provided a full week off, the Penguins entered the contest as fresh as proverbial daisies. However, the extra rest did little to improve the team’s sagging on-ice fortunes. After jumping to an early lead, the Pens unraveled over the final 40 minutes and fell to their third-straight loss, 3-1.
Determined to make a statement against an upper-echelon foe, the Penguins played arguably their finest opening period in nearly three weeks. Pascal Dupuis set the tone two minutes in when he tested Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist following a takeaway by Jordan Staal.
The Pens promptly cashed in at 5:43, thanks to a great bit of teamwork by the lunch-pail gang. Matt Niskanen started the play when he knocked hulking Brian Boyle off the puck with a jarring check at the blue line. Joe Vitale scooped up the rubber and headmanned it to Craig Adams, who found Ben Lovejoy with a pretty pass in the slot. The speedy Pens defender made no mistake and whipped it by Lundqvist for his first goal of the season.
Skating with poise and confidence, the blue-clad Penguins continued to dominate the action while holding the Rangers to a single shot on goal. Tyler Kennedy made a brilliant move to cut into the slot, but the puck rolled off his blade at the last second. Dupuis broke free at the 14-minute mark and unleashed a blistering shot, only to strike iron.
The tide abruptly turned at 18:17 when Ryan McDonagh lugged the puck out of the corner and threaded a shot between Brandon Dubinsky’s legs at the left post. The rebound hopped to Brad Richards, who snapped the puck past Marc-Andre Fleury to knot the score at 1-1.
Clearly deflated by the stroke of misfortune, the Penguins struggled to regain their composure. Three minutes into the second period New York captain Ryan Callahan deftly pulled the puck around a sliding Niskanen and fed Dubinsky for an easy shorthanded tap-in. Derek Stepan capitalized on a dreadful turnover by Fleury early in the final frame to drive the final nail into the Pens’ coffin.
Still, Pittsburgh showed some life at 8:59 when James Neal cut through the slot and beat Lundqvist to the glove side. But Chris Kunitz interfered with “King Henrik” on the play and the goal was disallowed. As if to put a final exclamation point on a downer of an evening, Staal injured his left knee in a collision with Mike Rupp as the game was winding down. The big center writhed on the ice in obvious pain before being helped to the locker room by his teammates.
“We did a lot of good things; we just didn’t capitalize on them,” Kunitz said. “But they also capitalized on their chances … like on 2-on-1s, plays that were kind of easy goals for them.”
Lovejoy earned the No. 3 star … Evgeni Malkin was held pointless for the second-straight game … The Penguins out-shot the Rangers 38-21 … Dupuis and Neal paced the Pens with six shots apiece … Pittsburgh was 0-for-4 on the power play … Off-season acquisition Colin McDonald made his black-and-gold debut … Simon Despres was returned to Wilkes-Barre … Arron Asham, Robert Bortuzzo, Sidney Crosby, Dustin Jeffrey, Kris Letang, and Steve MacIntyre were scratches.
The Penguins (21-14-4) meet New Jersey (22-16-1) Saturday night at CONSOL Energy Center. The Devils trail the Pens by a point in the Atlantic Division standings.
*Be sure to check out Rick’s new book, “100 Things Penguins Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die” at TriumphBooks.com. It features 296 pages of bios, stories, anecdotes and photos from the team’s colorful past in a compelling, easy-to-read style. Whether you’re a die-hard booster from the days of Jean Pronovost or a big fan of Sid and Geno, this book is a must have for any true Penguins fan.
Don’t forget to check out Rick’s first book, “Total Penguins,” at TriumphBooks.com. A complete and comprehensive book on the team’s rich and storied history, it’s filled with season-by-season summaries, player profiles and stats, bios on coaches, general managers and owners, photos from the “Post-Gazette” archives, and much, much more.