This should be delicious hockey theatre, Marc-Andre Fleury and Henrik Lundqvist face-to-face along Fifth Avenue on a bone-cold night in January, as should the Penguins against Broadway’s Blueshirts in any drama relative to divisional politics.
So where’s the drama?
Where’s the conflict?
Why the perfunctory song-and-dance every time this matchup comes to Pittsburgh?
“It’s funny,” said Taylor Pyatt, barely stifling a laugh in the home dressing room. “The Rangers seem to struggle coming here to Pittsburgh, but it’s nice to be on the other side tonight, playing in front of these fans for the first time.”
The Penguins claimed Pyatt off waivers from the Rangers only a day earlier, so instead of standing in the room down the hall lamenting another Rangers pratfall, he was with the winners after skating 18 workmanlike shifts fresh from a crash course in Penguinology.
Friday night it was 4-0 Penguins before the third period even started, and no one could say they were surprised. The Rangers had won exactly twice here in the past 21 games, and not at all since Jan. 6, 2012, or two days short of two years.
New York doubtless knew what was coming when the first Penguins shot, a pretty harmless wrister from the blade of Robert Bortuzzo, smacked Lundqvist right in the face with no apparent reaction from the King Henrik other than a frozen demonstration of why goalies wear masks.
Featuring not much more than the seldom-heard attack-zone harmonies of Jussi Jokinen and Brian Gibbons, the Penguins dominated a fifth consecutive Rangers appointment Uptown, their total goals-to-goals against numbers now having reached 17-5.
But I suppose if you look too hard at the empirical evidence, there’s little wonder why this keeps happening, in part because the Penguins are a difficult bunch on home ice against anyone, but in larger part because the Rangers are pretty conspicuously dreadful.
In the Friday morning edition, for example, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette listed the NHL’s top 13 scorers, its 22 top goal getters, its 17 top assist men, its 15 plus/minus leaders, its 11 leaders in power-play goals, 9 leaders in short-handed goals, the 11 top players in power-play assists, the 8 top short-handed assist men, its 9 leaders in points on the power play, its 7 leaders in short-handed points, and its 18 top goaltenders by goals-against average.
And how many names from those 11 leadership lists are currently stitched across the back of a New York Rangers sweater?
Not even the great Lundqvist has had an especially productive winter, unless your talking portfolio, which the Rangers bolstered for him to the tune of $59.5 million in a contract that runs for seven years. The response has been skittish, as Rangers opponents have scored three or more goals in nine of the past 10 Lundqvist starts.
Of course, it’s not all on Lundqvist, as he seemed to want to point out Friday night after a 5-2 affair.
“It was just too easy for them to create big chances,” he said. “We did a lot of good things offensively, we really did. We outplayed them for stretches during the game. But they’re always a good team finding openings and creating that big chance, but it was just a little too simple for them to make that play tonight.”
Sidney Crosby kicked the biscuit across the slot to Chris Kunitz for an easy first goal, and odd caroms and bounces seemed to be the preferred method on both Jokinen goals that made it 3-0, but Crosby’s backhander for a 4-0 bulge flashed just over Lundqvist’s glove in a way that amplified the fact that the King hasn’t been himself since signing that contract one month ago today.
The Rangers will take an $8.5 million cap hit annually as a result of that deal, or about $1.5 million more than for any goaltender in the league. I love Lundqvist, but enough to give him Crosby money ($8.7 million)?
“The tough part about Crosby is that he had a chance to shoot a couple of times, instead he just throws it back or to the side, and it’s an open net, couple times, and that’s what he does,” Lundqvist said. “He’s hard to defend. You have to play him hard and he’s one of the best players.
“You have to give it to him; he makes some great plays, right in front. If you don’t play a really strong game, it’s gonna be a tough night.”
New York returns for one final engagement the first Friday in February, by which time the Rangers hope to be a little more relevant in this Metropolitan Division, perhaps by amending their plus-minus chart so that it no longer resembles a temperature map of Saskatchewan: minus-9, minus-11, minus-6.
“We’ve got to regroup real fast,” Lundqvist said.
Uh-huh. Probably starting with the goaltending.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.