NEW YORK -- Seen as beasts of the East before the season began, the New York Rangers are now looking at an 0-2 start after two uninspired efforts. Skating in the home opener Sunday night, the Rangers dropped a 6-3 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins, as Vezina-Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist was pulled after allowing four goals on 18 shots in 29 minutes. This wasn't the script. New York was a win away from a Presidents' Trophy last season and two away from a trip to the Stanley Cup finals. Add stud forward Rick Nash to a team that returned all of its key players and it was easy to see why many forecasted the team's first title since 1994.
"I don't think we're pushing the panic button," said Nash, who scored his first goal as a Ranger in the third period, "but there are a lot of things we need to correct. It's short season, so we need to correct them fast."
New York dropped a 3-1 decision in Boston on Saturday, but this loss, in front of a home crowd during a 48-game season that now seems shorter, has the club on notice. "You know it's early," said Lundqvist, "but you don't have as much time as you would I other seasons."
The Rangers were simply outworked, outchecked and outplayed. "I don't think we were strong in any aspect," captain Ryan Callahan said after the game. "We've gotten away from the way we were playing last year."
Asked after the dismal effort which areas his team needed to improve upon, Ranger coach John Tortorella snapped, "All of them. That is certainly not being sarcastic. All of them."
Last season the Ranger way entailed scraping, hitting, blocking shots and clearing lanes in from of Lundqvist to make his life easier. They showed little fight on Sunday for a team that routinely showed so much of it in 2011-12.
Maybe it's a trust issue, but Tortorella didn't initially break out his five-forward power-play alignment after Pittsburgh forward Simon Despres took a holding penalty midway through the first period with the Penguins up, 1-0. Instead he sent out defenseman Michael Del Zotto to join forwards Callahan, Mike Richards, Nash and Marian Gaborik. After Pittsburgh's Brandon Sutter was whistled for a faceoff violation on the subsequent drop of the puck -- when no time clicked off the clock -- Tortorella replaced Del Zotto with forward Derek Stepan. Callahan scored for New York on the ensuing two-man advantage. Certainly the move of Stepan to the point sparked New York's sputtering power play near the end of last season, but he also looked like a forward trying to play the point whenever New York turned the puck over at the opposition blueline, leaving one to wonder how much of a liability Tortorella thinks he may be at the point.
In expressing his enthusiasm last spring about rookie Chris Kreider, who had just joined the team from Boston College in time for the playoffs, Tortorella mentioned how excited he was to get Kreider into training camp the next season in order to round out his game and bring his defensive work up to the level of his offensive instincts and fabulous speed. Without that camp, one wondered if Kreider's defensive shortcomings might be exposed. That's exactly what happened on Pittsburgh's second goal with five minutes left in the opening period. First, Penguins forward Joe Vitale skated quickly down the left side and faked out Ranger defenseman Stu Bickel with a simple head shift. Vitale then tried to cut in front of the Ranger net, but managed just a bad-angle flip on Lundqvist, who made the initial save. The rebound was Kreider's to clear. Facing Lundqvist, he had his back to any Penguin forwards who would follow the play behind him. As Kreider played neither the puck, nor the body, Tyler Kennedy sped past him and put the rebound past Lundqvist for Pittsburgh's go-ahead goal.
Credit Crosby with a decisive faceoff win against Stepan on Pittsburgh's third goal. Crosby won the puck easily back to defenseman Matt Niskanen, who fired a slapper off the skate of Ranger defenseman Dan Girardi and between Lundqvist's pads for a 3-1 lead. When Pascal Dupuis scored a power-play goal to make it 4-1 midway through the second period, Tortorella pulled his ace goalie. "I wasn't going to leave him in there with what was going on in front of him," the coach said.
Though replacement Marty Biron stopped 19 of 20 shots, his defenseman deserted him on Pittsburgh's fifth goal, five minutes into the third period. Both Girardi and Del Zotto collapsed to the right side as Penguins forward James Neal sneaked in behind them. Neal took a pass from Pens' forward Evgeni Malkin and had several seconds before beating Biron with a wrist shot. Malkin finished the night with three assists, but it helped when New York's defense occasionally fell asleep.
From the Penguins' standpoint, the signs of success were everywhere. If Sidney Crosby was feeling lingering effects from his career of concussions, it didn't show on any of his assertive charges to the net. The Penguins captain also threw the game's best check, knocking rugged New York defenseman Stu Bickel straight off his feet in the first period.
In goal, off-season addition Tomas Vokoun stopped 31 shots for the Penguins. His acquisition could be among the most underrated moves of the summer. Starter Marc-Andre Fleury seemed to wear down in last year's opening-round playoff loss to Philadelphia. A capable starter on bad teams for much of his career, Vokoun gives Pittsburgh security it didn't have last season. The Penguins have now won road games in Philadelphia and New York to open the season.
"Two tough buildings to come into," said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma, whose club beat the Flyers, 3-1, on Saturday. "They are extremely big wins for us."
In the meantime, when pressed to highlight a bright spot from his bench, Tortorella mentioned an unlikely source. Forward Arron Asham didn't wait long to get his name on the scoresheet while making his home-ice debut with the Rangers. Asham, who has now played for all five Atlantic Division teams, appeared on the opening shift with forwards Brad Richards and Rick Nash, forwards who are not likely to be regular linemates. Asham chatted to Penguins forward Tanner Glass and staged a fight just two seconds after the opening faceoff, beating last season's three-fight Devils' debacle by a second. Glass got the jump in the lengthy fight before Asham caught a second wind. "Ash goes in there and turns it around and we don't come in behind him," Tortorella said. "When a player does something like that for as long as he did, the other players need to feed off that and we just didn't do that."
Even more telling, when asked about a hit delivered by Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik that dazed Kreider after knocking him down, Tortorella defended the thumping as "a clean hit," and added, "Maybe we need to get knocked around a bit."