Seven games into an increasingly skittish postseason, there is still no persuasive evidence that the Penguins intend to put three really professional periods together on any given night.
One or two, maybe, and possibly a couple of minutes of an overtime period here or there if it’s not too much trouble, but 60 minutes or more doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.
Friday night arrived along with an engraved invitation from the league office, as the New York Rangers were scheduled to play their third playoff game in four nights, their fourth in six, in fact.
They were tired. They were vulnerable. They were the battle-ready equivalent of a drunk stumbling into a dark alley.
And, of course, they’re ahead in these Eastern Conference semifinals, 1-0, after the Penguins somehow got out of their way in Game 1.
“We’ve got to find a way to capture something earlier,” said Lee Stempniak, who back-handed Beau Bennett’s exquisite drop pass into the Rangers net in the second period to start a wasted Penguins comeback. “We have to put a couple of solid shifts together. We came out a bit flat and they played well. We’ve got to get a better start.”
They’d have a hard time getting a worse one.
Sidney (No Goals Since March 30) Crosby and his teammates floated around like some soporific Disney On Ice production for the game’s first 20 minutes. ’Twas quite the spectacle.
Rather than jump on the Rangers, the Penguins concentrated on mishandling the puck or simply giving it away. Five times they turned it over in the first period alone, one by Crosby on the power play and twice by Malkin.
“We didn’t have that dominant push forward that we want in the offensive zone,” was the way coach Dan Bylsma described it. “We weren’t really at our best. We have to know that they’re a good team.”
Two periods had elapsed by the time the restless Penguins crowd and the game-weary Rangers realized that we were all in a kind of weird waiting game based on the matter of what would materialize first:
A Crosby goal or the Rangers actually converting on the power play.
The first one hasn’t been seen here or anywhere going back 12 playoff games, and the second, though it occurred exactly thrice in New York’s exhausting first-round smack-around against the Philadelphia Flyers, had become an 0-for-the-past-25-opportunities situation by closing time Friday night.
Forced to wager on one or the other as the third period began, you would have bet on the Rangers, because as that first period devolved, the Blueshirts mounted a two-goal lead, or the very thing the Penguins had overcome almost reflexively in the Columbus series. Both Rangers goals arose from fits of fecklessness by Penguins defenders, the first when Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta watched with only mild interest as Benoit Pouliot rifled the puck from the high slot past Marc-Andre Fleury at 5:04. The same defensive pair was found culpable late in the period, when New York’s Carl Hagelin escorted the puck into the right wing corner, drawing the interest of Maatta, but when Niskanen went after him to assist, he left the crease wide open for Brad Richards, who took Hagelin’s pass, repositioned Fleury with a nifty fake, then pumped it home to put New York ahead, 2-0.
“This is a big win,” Richards said in the final hours of his 34th birthday. “We like our chances 5 on 5 and we’ve just got to get some more zone time and more traffic on the power play, but when you win, 3-2, in overtime, the last thing I’m thinking about is what was wrong with the power play an hour and a half ago.”
As Richards pointed out, the Penguins matched New York’s 0 for 4 with the man advantage, so that neutralized everything but Derick Brassard’s goal from the intense pressure in front of Fleury at 3:06 of the overtime.
If Bylsma’s team is to survive the second round again this year, it’s going to have to figure out the unfavorable dynamics that are present every time New York sends out the line of Pouliot, Mats Zuccarello and Brassard, who have now combined for seven goals and eight assists in five Penguins-Rangers meetings this season.
“That line’s been pretty productive for them all year, not just against us,” Crosby said. “They’re big and they get the puck down low, and they have some skill. I thought we were pretty well prepared. There wasn’t much that surprised us. If we can execute in our own zone, eliminate that forecheck, we’ll give ourselves a chance.”
That’s all the Rangers had last night, a chance, and a slim chance at that. But it was just enough against a Penguins team that is just here and there, not everywhere.
Gene Collier: firstname.lastname@example.org.