For most of Game 2 against the New York Rangers Saturday, the Penguins weren’t unhappy with their play. But they also seemed a little off, getting away from the aggressive forecheck and puck possession that have brought them success.
During a five-minute span in the second half of the second period, the Rangers made them pay.
With Pittsburgh holding a 1-0 lead on a pretty Phil Kessel goal that leveraged the best of the Penguins – namely, lightning-quick speed and passing – the Rangers’ Keith Yandle and Derick Brassard stunned the home team with goals 18 seconds apart. Mats Zuccarello made it 3-1 less than four minutes later.
“They made a couple nice plays there through the seam, a couple breaks [and] they run a nice faceoff play,” said goaltender Jeff Zatkoff, starting once more in place of the concussed Marc-Andre Fleury. “I think we had a lull there in the second period where they took advantage of us. And, if you take that out, it’s a dead-even hockey game.”
The Penguins were rarely out of a game during the second half of the season, even when down by a few goals. But, when Rangers center Chris Kreider put home a dagger just 39 seconds into the third period, the game had a distinct feel of being out of reach. Even after Kessel found the net for the second time early in the period, closing the gap to the eventual final of 4-2, the Penguins were simply not doing enough right to mount a comeback.
One problem was the defensive breakdowns. In addition to blown coverage and miscues, the Penguins had 10 giveaways, many of which led to high-quality Rangers scoring chances.
“When our team is at its best, we’ve been defending really well, and I think a couple of the goals are uncharacteristic of this group,” Sullivan said. “The Rangers are a good team, and they took advantage of a few [giveaways].
“That’s hockey for me. If we want to win consistently, we’ve got to limit those turnovers, especially in certain areas of the rink. There were a few tonight where we turned the puck over in high-risk areas, and those are tough places to defend, because usually they end up at your net really quickly.”
Then there was that five-minute lull in the second period, when the Penguins seemingly forgot it’s usually necessary to play a complete hockey game against good opponents.
“They have great forwards,” said Evgeni Malkin, who returned after only five weeks of a reported elbow injury that was expected to keep him out 6-8. “We play half game, it’s good, but five minutes [of the] second period we lose focus and they score three goals. It’s playoffs; you need to play right the whole 60 minutes.”
“We had probably a five- or six-minute span in the second period where we lost some of the details of our game, the awareness away from the puck,” Sullivan said. “It wasn’t for a very long period of time, but then I thought we grabbed a hold of ourselves.”
By then, however, it was too late. And that was mostly because the Penguins largely got away from focusing on their own play and let the Rangers dictate a game that stifled their ability to use their speed and skill – something, in going 3-1 against New York during the season, Pittsburgh had managed to avoid.
“I think you could say we got caught a little bit too much east-west with them,” Zatkoff said. “We have to much skill I think we sometimes fall into that, but I think we’re most effective when we play north-south and we can get a forecheck on them. I don’t think as a team we were able to establish the kind of forecheck we wanted.”
Add all of that to a typically high-quality start for Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who returned from the eye injury he sustained in Game 1 to shut the door on 29 of 31 Penguins shots, and the series was even at 1-1 heading to New York.
“Not [surprised] in the slightest,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “Anybody that’s been around Hank knows he’s an elite goaltender and he’s a big-game goaltender, and there’s no doubt that, as a group tonight, we needed to respond and play better than we did last game. And I thought we did that.
“He made a big save in the second when it was 1-0 for them and then, after we were able to capitalize on a few of our chances, we were able to grind it out.”
The Penguins have their work cut out for them heading into Game 3. For starters, they’ll likely revisit their line combinations, which changed with the return of Malkin and forward Bryan Rust.
“As a coaching staff, we’ll try to put our heads together and come up with what we think is the best way to deploy these guys,” Sullivan said. “I think what Geno [Malkin] does add to our roster is, it gives us options. We’ve got some versatile players on our bench that can play left wing, right wing, some natural centers who can play the wing. That’s something we’ll talk about the next couple of days.”
They’ll also revisit their defensive pairings. After going with seven D for Game 1, the Penguins went back to six and offense-minded Justin Schultz, who played just 5:52 in that contest, found himself the odd man out.
“We felt we needed some defensemen that had penalty-killing skill sets, that could take some minutes away from some of our guys in that regard, that maybe their strength lies in defending,” Sullivan said. “With Geno back in the lineup, we usually go with four forwards on the first power play, and so that takes a little bit of emphasis off the importance of a power play defenseman.
“So that was some of the logic behind the decision we made. But by no means is it etched in stone. Justin’s a guy who’s brought a lot to our team, as have the guys who were in the lineup tonight. We’ll revisit it and see what we think might be best for the next game. But, certainly, all of the defensemen we’ve used to this point, we really believe can help us win; it’s just a matter of how we want to try to use them.”
It’s shaping up to be a hard-fought, tightly contested series, exactly as one would expect from this third matchup in as many years between the longtime division rivals.
“It’s a game of mistakes and it’s a fine line,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “I think we understand that; we know that’s a big part of winning any game, especially in the playoffs. We have to either recover from them or not make as many.
“Tonight, we ended up paying for our mistakes, but that’s how close it is. We had opportunities the other way, too, and if we put some of those in, maybe we’re not in the same position. We still think we can play better, and hopefully we do that in New York.”