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2014 NHL Playoffs: Penguins edge tired Rangers to take 2-1 series lead

By Brian Cazeneuve

(NEW YORK) -- Sooner or later, the Penguins figured their top players would come through. On Monday night at Madison Square Garden, Sidney Crosby scored his first goal in 14 playoff games and Marc-Andre Fleury made 35 saves while increasing his shutout streak to 120 minutes since he allowed an overtime goal in Game 1, as the Pittsburgh beat the New York Rangers, 2-0, to take a 2-1 lead in their second-round playoff series. The Penguins took advantage of a tired Rangers team that was playing on consecutive nights and for the fifth time in seven days. New York could muster little push-back once Pittsburgh took the lead.

Here are some observations from the game:

Penguins-Rangers Game 3 recap | Box score | Series breakdown with pick

• The emerging Crosby racked up six shots in the first two periods of Game 1 on Sunday, but took only one on Monday, but it was crucial in that it produced the game's first goal, the only one that Fleury would need, at 2:24 of the second period. Pittsburgh had just finished killing a double minor penalty to James Neal, when Crosby took a lead pass from defenseman Robert Bortuzzo and found Henrik Lundqvist's five hole from the left circle. It seemed to be matter of time before Crosby would strike, and from the Penguins' perspective, it was about time. He hadn't scored a postseason goal since the Penguins' second-round series against Ottawa last season and was held pointless, along with Evgeni Malkin, in Boston's four-game sweep of Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference Finals. In Game 1 against the Rangers, and twice in this year's opening round against Columbus, Crosby was -2 or -3 for the game.

•  Sid wasn't Pittsburgh's busiest player (he played only 16:54 in the game, including 5:08 in the third period as defensive center Brandon Sutter skated 6:21 in order to help protect the lead), but he was one of the most effective, jumping into holes, putting the Rangers' weary defense on it heels by making it work to stop him. He'd shown his frustration in earlier playoff games, banging his stick, begging for calls and shaking his head at the bench. He was much less emotive in his team's last two wins. "The main thing is that you get chances and you are out there creating things, making it tough on them," he said. "That's the first step, but eventually you trust that it will go in if you get those chances."

• As with Crosby, Fleury was a noticeably more confident player once he began to find his game. He's been sticking to his angles and managing his rebounds better. He used good judgment by letting a lot of pucks roll past him and behind the net rather than trying to play them and getting himself into trouble. He was also lucky at times: New York's Martin St. Louis hit the goal post, and Mats Zuccarello pinged one off the crossbar. Still, It was the first time in Fleury's career, including regular season and playoffs, that he has recorded shutouts on consecutive days. "It feels great to see him having success like that," said Penguins defenseman Kris Letang. "He's been awesome all year, but especially the last few games, he's been our best player."

Fleury's coach, Dan Bylsma, agreed: "I don't think there was any question that he was our best player on the ice tonight," the coach said. "Our penalty kill was strong all throughout the game and that was mostly because of Marc-Andre. There were a lot of pucks dragged to the net and a lot of scoring chances... He was great and he was the difference in the game."

• The Rangers' power play failed five times, extending its slump to no goals in 34 straight tries. While some of those man advantages were cancelled out by Pittsburgh penalties, it does not look goode for the Blueshirts, whose power play has actually become a little more creative during the last few games at it works the puck into the low angles and generates chances from different spots. Still, there are moments when the defensemen at the point--and sometimes Brad Richards, when he plays there–simply overhandle the puck. Pittsburgh took advantage of New York's sloppy unit and scored its second goal after Mats Zuccarello tried to drop a pass to Richards at the Penguins' blue line just as Jussi Jokinen's penalty expired. The pass rolled wide of Richards and straight to Jokinen, who sprinted up the ice uncontested and notched the unassisted tally. Rangers blueliner Ryan McDonagh later defended his team's sketchy performance on the power play. "We had the puck in their zone a lot more with a lot more possession," he said. "We should feel good because we had a lot of looks. It's just a matter of crashing the net and making it as hard on [Fleury] as we can."

• The tight schedule certainly favored the Penguins in Game 3. Even though both teams had played the previous evening and were facing their third contest in four nights, New York had come off a seven-game series against the Flyers during which there was no day off in between Games 6 and 7. This marked the first time in 25 years that any NHL team had played as many as five playoff games in such a span. Perhaps because of the heavy workload, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was compelled to play his bottom two lines against Crosby or Malkin for parts of the night, even with the last change. The Rangers also had Raphael Diaz, a healthy scratch for New York's first nine playoff games, quarterbacking its power play for 6:18. Diaz led all players with six shots. Still, the Rangers didn't want to use the fatigue as an excuse. Before the game, Vigneault told reporters: "We're in the second round of the NHL playoffs. You've got a chance to compete for the Stanley Cup. We're excited. We're energized. We traveled like they did last night. They took a plane. They flew here. I don't see what the point is. We're good to go."

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma concurred: "It's not an advantage unless you make it an advantage," he said. "It's not just the case that the schedule is going to make it tough for the Rangers. You make it tough with how you're playing." In particular, the Penguins, who are not always a strong forechecking team, were on top of the tired Rangers defensemen, who found themselves turning to go back and catch forwards who had gotten a step behind them. That also meant the Rangers' blueliners, who are very skilled at joining the play later, were preoccupied with their own end and not quite up to playing on the other 125 feet of ice.

• The Penguins may have taken the Rangers' fatigue into consideration by adopting a more conservative approach in the third period. When Lundqvist stopped James Neal's 45-foot, bad angle shot with 6:35 to play in regulation, it was Pittsburgh's first shot on goal since Jokinen's strike, 18 minutes earlier. It was also Pittsburgh's only shot of the period and one of just 15 for the game. The Penguins were content to let the Rangers come to them and make mistakes as New York was marked for 20 turnovers on the night, compared with eight for Pittsburgh.

• Call this a one-off for the Rangers if they can come back with their normal effort on Wednesday after Tuesday's day off. But they'd better recharge in a hurry, especially if the Penguins continue to play with the kind swagger that makes them very dangerous.

The Penguins and Rangers meet in Game 4 on Wed. night in New York at 7:30 ET (NBCSN, CBC, RDS).

Complete NHL Playoffs schedule