Football teams are allowed to decline penalties. Why not hockey teams? The New York Rangers’ abysmal power play was it again on Wednesday night, extending its streak of futility to 36 straight chances and allowing a shorthanded goal in a 4-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Those weren’t the only damning numbers for the Rangers who were outshot by 27-15. Pittsburgh also won more face-offs, 31-18, but gave the puck away only eight times compared to New York's 25 turnovers. Worst of all, the Penguins, who were undermanned on defense, simply outplayed the listless Rangers, who mustered a paltry effort against goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, has suddenly found his game. Coming off back-to-back playoff shutouts for the first time in his postseason career, Fleury has now stopped 70 of his last 72 shots.
New York played a tired and disinterested game in a crucial second-round contest. Sure the Rangers have had a cluttered schedule recently – they are the first team in 25 years to play five playoff games in seven days – but excuses aside, the home team gave its fans reasons to jeer and leave early. The Broadway Booshirts have also given newfound confidence to Penguins who had been questioning themselves during a surprisingly tough first-round series against upstart Columbus and now lead this one three games to one.
Here are some notes and observations from Game 4:
• The Penguins started Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin together, perhaps trying to find some energy, but the Rangers helped by not pushing back. Perhaps it’s the poor acoustics in the redesigned Madison Square Garden or maybe it’s the corporate clientele that simply doesn’t have the pep that some of the old Garden crowds had, but what was once the loudest building in the league now often sounds like a library. For what it's worth, New York had an outstanding 25-14-2 road record during the regular season, but was only 20-17-4 at home. The Penguins, though, feel right at home at MSG, where they are now 12-4 under coach Dan Byslma, who said, "This is one of the best places to come in and play. It's a great building and we seem to always have a rivalry with the Rangers, so we don't need that motivation for the playoffs." The Rangers, meanwhile, now need something to spark them out of their torpor or their season is going to end in Pittsburgh on Friday night.
• The game was barely two minutes old when the sloppy Rangers rolled out some hospitality for their guests. New York defenseman Anton Stralman tried a long pass into center ice from deep in his own zone only to have Malkin pick it off and start a rush with Crosby. Malkin's pass attempt to his linemate pinballed off Rangers blueliner Marc Staal and went right to Malkin’s backhand. The Penguin star spun and slid a shot under Henrik Lundqvist’s left pad for Pittsburgh’s first goal, at 2:31.
• Forward Chris Kreider was back in New York's lineup after missing 19 games because of a fractured left hand. He skated on a line with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, two skilled forwards who have struggled to find the net and may be nursing injuries. Nash leads all NHL players with 45 shots on goal during the playoffs, but doesn’t yet have a goal. Nash unleashed a team-high four shots in Game 4, but his scoring drought continues.
• Ranger Ryan McDonagh appeared to be favoring his left shoulder, which has made him tentative on that side for much of the playoffs. The ace defenseman is -5 and was without a point in his 11th consecutive playoff game. He finally got off the schneid at 5:30 of the second period when New York broke through against Fleury, ending his shutout string of 145 minutes, 30 seconds. McDonagh found forward Carl Hagelin cutting through the middle of the ice.
• The Rangers’ pathetic power play sunk them late in the second period with the score still 1-1. On what became its 36th consecutive chance without producing a goal with a so-called man advantage, New York surrendered a deflating shortie. Nash tried to feed Stepan in center ice, but the puck was picked off by Pens blueliner Kris Letang, who sprung Brian Gibbons up the ice. Ranger defenseman Dan Girardi bothered Gibbons just enough to keep him from getting a shot off, but with Lundqvist sprawled in anticipation, Brandon Sutter simply tapped the puck that was left at the doorstep into an open net. “It definitely gave them momentum,” Nash lamented. “It’s a play where I can’t try to make something out of nothing and turn back and take my ice. I have to be better.”
• Pittsburgh extended its lead to a pair at 7:02 of the third when Staal had a horrendous shift in his own zone. James Neal had been struggling during the playoffs with just three points through his first nine games, but he outworked Staal to a free puck at the Ranger line and shoved the defenseman aside, working it to Jussi Jokinen behind New York’s goal. Jokinen whirled and swung a forehand into the slot where the puck banked off Staal’s skate and behind Lundqvist to give Pittsburgh a 3-1 lead. “I think when you play against this team you have to realize that every little play matters,” said the goalie. “They have the skill and they do make you pay if you’re not careful.”
• Though Mats Zuccarello sliced Pittsburgh's lead to 3-2 at 13:07, the Penguins needed less than a minute to restore their former two-goal advantage when Crosby and Malkin set up Chris Kunitz, leaving New York's Brad Richards to search for the bright side. "This is not the ideal night for us," he said. "The good thing is...we're still in it. We win Game 1, we are on top of the world. You lose three in a row, and as quick as it went that way it can go right back." Yes, but that won't happen unless the Rangers can find ways to take advantage of opportunities and numerical edges. For example, the Penguins were short a defenseman for nearly the entire game after Brooks Orpik went down in the first period after just five minutes of ice time. Orpik went to hit Zuccarello from behind, but the Rangers forward saw him coming, anticipated the contact, and jumped back into him, leaving the Pens blueliner favoring his right leg after the collision. (Orpik, who had been replaced by Robert Bortuzzo in Game 3, was a gametime decision due to an undisclosed injury.) Nevertheless, New York was unable to wear down Pittsburgh's remaining defenders with sustained pressure.
• Kudos to Pens backliner Paul Martin, who has been a workhorse throughout the playoffs. He logged a whopping 30:05 of ice time on Wednesday and ranks second in the league to teammate Brandon Sutter with a +9 postseason rating. Martin is a sturdy, but cleaner, version of what Ulf Samuelsson used to be for the Penguins' Stanley Cup teams of the early '90s. (Samuelsson is now a Rangers assistant coach). He makes safe outlet passes, patrols the slot, and no doubt boosts the confidence of Fleury, whose rebound control has not always been as strong as it has been in the past few games. Don’t underestimate how valuable Martin is to the Penguins.
* Pittsburgh has done a good job plugging the lanes during their shorthanded sequences in this series, but the Rangers have made it easy for them by not shooting enough -- Fleury faced on 15 shots in the game -- and by not moving enough at the points or by the dots. Garbage goals happen when you confuse and outnumber the opposition, and the Rangers have not used superior numbers to their advantage nor have they done enough to bother a goalie who had a fragile mindset coming into the series. “I think we figured out our problems from the last few years,” Fleury said. "We played a little tighter game. We didn’t give them as man odd-man rushes and scoring chances as we used to.” The Rangers and Penguins meet in Game 5 on Friday night in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. Eastern (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).