Tuesday April 21st, 2015

New York built a two-goal lead while handcuffing Pittsburgh’s star-studded offense for most of Game 3 at the Consol Energy Center Monday night. While the Penguins pressed late in the game, the Rangers hung on to a 2-1 victory and gave themselves a 2-1 series lead.

Here are three thoughts from the game:

1. The Rangers played an impeccable road game from start to finish

Even when the Penguins cut a two-goal lead in half late in the third, New York maintained its composure in the face of a frantic Pittsburgh offense. Down two goals with 6:48 left in the game, the Penguins finally broke through when rugged winger Patric Hornqvist found a puck right in his wheelhouse—that is, a crowded slot in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist. Hornqvist’s score revitalized a largely subdued Consol Energy Center, which had frustratingly watched the Rangers dominate through the first 50 minutes of the game.

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The road has been kind to New York all season. With a 28-11-2 record away from MSG, the Rangers allowed the fewest goals on the road all season, and their goal differential was by far the best in the league. In Game 3, New York coach Alain Vigneault was savvy with his matchups. Despite not having the last change, he managed to get top pair defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi out on the ice for more than half of Sidney Crosby’s shifts and kept him to just two shots on goal. The heat on the McDonagh-Crosby matchup seemed to elevate as the game wore on; Game 4 could see that matchup hit a boiling point.

2. Make no mistake: New York’s built on defense

As much the Rangers’ offense has been a key to their success this season—they average more than three goals per game—New York’s strength is still a solid defense. Last season, the Rangers ranked fourth in the league with 2.32 goals against per game and only improved that figure this season with 2.28 goals against. It’s a strong unit that has largely fed their offense this season, namely a transition game that led to New York’s first goal on Monday night. Defenseman Keith Yandle held up Sidney Crosby as he entered the offensive zone with the puck. Getting separation between Crosby and the puck, he was then able to turn the play into a breakaway for speedy winger Carl Hagelin 150 feet away at 8:43 in the first period.

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But beyond the goal, New York put on a defensive clinic through the first two periods of Game 3. Maintaining tight gaps and rushing Penguins into turnovers, the Rangers managed to keep Pittsburgh, which averaged 31.6 shots per game this season, to just three shots in the first 20 minutes. And what’s more, those three were taken in the last five minutes of the period. The Penguins’ forwards managed just 11 shots through the first two periods, only five of which were within 25 feet of Lundqvist. Pittsburgh’s low shot total was also a function of its tepid offense, especially early. “I thought we forced a lot of plays in the first period,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston said at a press conference after the game. “I thought we overpassed the puck early for sure…. We took the pass back instead of the lane ahead.”

3. Penalties played a smaller part, but they were still important 

After going just 1 for 7 on the power play in Game 2, the Rangers knew they’d need to minimize the missed opportunities that led to the 4-3 loss. They went 0 for 2 in Game 3, but the momentum they created during a second period power play helped New York convert just after a penalty to Penguins defenseman Paul Martin expired. After generating three shots on that man advantage, Rangers winger Chris Kreider banged in a short-side goal on a perfectly executed set play with defenseman Marc Staal shooting through an open lane wide of the Penguins net. The puck bounced back to the doorstep, where Kreider was waiting to give New York a 2-0 lead.

The Penguins, meanwhile, displayed better discipline—or perhaps the referees of Game 3 simply swallowed their whistles. After going shorthanded five times in Game 1, Pittsburgh took seven minors in Game 2. The count went back down to five in Game 3 (though two on coincidental penalties), but three of those were stick violations, which Johnston had hoped to minimize.

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