By Allan Muir
Henrik Lundqvist showed up to play Sunday night. Too bad the rest of the New York Rangers didn't.
This was as good a performance as you'll see from a netminder, every bit the equal of Carey Price's double-OT gem against the Bruins on Thursday. A 32-save gem loaded with highlight-worthy moments that gave his team every chance to put a boot to the throats of the favored Pittsburgh Penguins.
But while he was at his jaw-dropping best stoning a Chris Kunitz breakaway out of the box or shutting down Sidney Crosby on several masterful chances, his mates were badly outworked, consistently losing board battles or playing happy hands with the puck. The result was a 3-0 loss to the Penguins in Game 2, tying their second-round series at a game apiece and setting the stage for a pivotal Game 3 at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
Lundqvist turned aside 24 shots through the first two periods alone and it looked for a while like the Pens might win the contest without actually beating King Henrik. Their first goal at 10:26 of the second was credited to Kris Letang but was actually deflected past Lundqvist by the stick of a diving Dan Girardi.
A Penguin finally got to him at the 16:30 mark of the third when Jussi Jokinen buried a rebound of a James Neal shot on the power play. Evgeni Malkin chipped in an empty netter to close out the scoring.
No doubt who the better team was in this one. The effort of the Pens was every bit the equal of Lundqvist's, a nearly perfect performance after a listless Game 1. They came out flying, hitting anything in white and throwing everything toward the net. When they weren't testing Lundqvist, they were pinning the puck in New York's zone, trying to exact a long-term toll on a defense that was playing a fifth game in eight nights.
It was a bold approach for Pittsburgh. The Pens have gotten themselves in trouble trying to be something they're not in the past--last year's Eastern Conference Final against Boston comes to mind--but this time the crash-and-bang clicked. They worked the body early, outhitting the Rangers 15-3 in the first period after landing just 15 hits total in Game 1. The effort paid off in the second and third as the Blueshirts visibly tired--a state that doesn't bode well for New York with Game 3 less than 24 hours away.
Here are some other observations after Sunday's contest:
Recap | Boxscore | Series breakdown and prediction
• Sidney Crosby's streak of playoff games without a goal reached 13 tonight. Doesn't matter. He was the best skater on the ice tonight.
This was vintage Sid, the world's greatest mucker and grinder. Driving the net--like he did on one spectacular run that separated Ryan McDonagh from his dignity in the third--working the corners, pushing off defenders like they were pee wees. He promised a better effort and delivered everywhere but on the score sheet. Say what you want about the value of Corsi, but it captured his dominance tonight: Crosby was on the ice for 20 Pittsburgh shot events and just seven by the Rangers for a 74.1 percent rating. He took six shots himself, all of them dangerous, and threatened on two or three other deflections that narrowly missed the mark. When he was on the ice the puck was buried in New York's end, so call him Pittsburgh's best defenseman too.
None of this will stop the criticism from some corners of course, and to be fair it was only one game. But this is the Crosby that can carry the Pens deep into the playoffs, and it was good to see him again.
• Crosby will skate away with all the praise after this one, but don't overlook a remarkable performance by Malkin. This was a truly heavy effort, one where he leaned on New York's defense and watched them stumble under him. He had five shots on the net, was a wrecking ball through the middle and posted a 66.7 percent Corsi. Couldn't ask for more from the big man.
• Rick Nash has felt the heat for his scoring slump but tonight it was his linemates that pulled a Claude Rains. Derek Stepan? One shot, 8-of-19 on the draw, minus-1 and a 40.9 percent Corsi rating. Brutal. Martin St. Louis was almost as bad, posting one shot and a minus-1 on a night when his most memorable moment was being cross-checked after a whistle. Putting the team on the power play might have been his biggest contribution if Nash hadn't retaliated by flattening Robert Bortuzzo and evening it up.
New York's top line has been held off the score sheet now for four straight games, going back to Game 5 of the Philadelphia series, because they've spent too much time settling for the easy ice rather than paying the price to control the middle. Compare that to the bullish commitment of Crosby and Malkin tonight and their failure looks even more glaring.
A team can only rely on secondary scoring for so long. If this line can't find a way to make an impact, the Rangers are done.
• As spectacular as Lundqvist was at his end of the ice, Fleury's performance was almost perfunctory...and that's exactly what the Pens needed. There was almost nothing worth noting about his 22-save effort because it was so workmanlike and concise. It's not that he wasn't tested but that he answered every challenge like a professional. Pucks shot toward him were calmly thwarted. Rebounds effortlessly cleared to safety or quickly covered. He was at his best during a second period penalty kill when he rejected three chances, including a nice stop on a Brad Richards wrister from in close. Beyond that, he simply took care of business. A little more of that could go a long way.
• A list of things that are as bad as New York's power play: McDonald's Random Red Couch commercial; the writing on "Saturday Night Live"; supermarket sushi; Jamie Foxx in "The Amazing Spider-man 2". That's pretty much it. The Pens came out looking to separate Ranger heads from torsos from the opening face-off and earned three penalties in quick succession. What did New York do with those opportunities to quiet the Consol and put Pittsburgh back on its heels? Two shots, no goals, no momentum.
Make it 29 chances and counting since they last scored with the extra man.
It's easy to break down what went wrong--extended gaps and failed zone entries seem to be the biggest problems--but that's not the point. Lundqvist kept the otherwise overmatched Rangers within one goal until the dying minutes. The power play was their chance to turn the game their way...and it failed. Again.
They're no 0-for-8 in this series and at a miserable 8.1 percent for the playoffs, worst of anyone in the tournament. Maybe we shouldn't be surprised. The Rangers' power play was equally ineffective last spring, converting 4 of 44 chances (9.1 percent) over 12 playoff games.
• I hate ripping on the officials because I appreciate that it's a really tough gig and that they're not trying to screw it up any more than Girardi was trying to deflect that puck past Lundqvist. But it's impossible to ignore this maddeningly inconsistent performance from Eric Furlatt and Wes McCauley. The duo handed the Rangers three power plays in the opening 10 minutes, the first two of which were peripheral vision calls at their worst, then put their whistles away for most of the second and third. They ignored repeat offenses committed by James Neal and Dan Carcillo
, then called an after-the-whistle bump on Derek Dorsett
with just under five minutes remaining, leading to Jokinen's clincher. This was playoff rulebook application at its worst. All players, coaches and fans want is a consistent application of the law. They didn't get that tonight.