Gene Collier: Uneasy trip back to New York looms large for Penguins



Maybe Mick Jagger, as his squawking lyric went, couldn't give it away on 7th Avenue, but the New York Rangers certainly could -- giving the puck away 25 times inside Madison Square Garden in one game of this Metropolitan Division final, the same game in which they stretched their power-play patheticism to 0 for 36.

That's right, patheticism, specifically the booed-off-the-ice brand.

But not even that brand of runaway incompetence could go on forever, which is essentially why the Penguins are back in Manhattan this morning, re-examining the evidence from Game 5, the Friday appointment in Pittsburgh when the Rangers not only stopped giving the puck away about every other minute, but actually started scoring on the power play.

Unless the Penguins believe they can prevent New York from winning a single game in New York in this series by taking Game 6 there tonight, a seventh game will be arranged for Tuesday in Pittsburgh, a seventh game in Pittsburgh always being a hair-raising proposition.

"When Chris [Kreider] scored that first power-play goal, there was a lot of weight on our shoulders that just dropped," said Derick Brassard, who just happened to follow it with the first multigoal game of his postseason life. "We really played well in the first period, but I think the big difference for our team was that we moved our feet, we skated. The Penguins close the gap really well, take away time and space, but we finally started skating.

"That's why we weren't having any success with the puck, and why we had nothing in transition. I hope we can learn from it."

Were he hoping to coach in the conference final again this spring, the Penguins' Dan Bylsma probably should have learned something in this series, as well, but there's no evidence that he has thus far.

When Brassard pumped in those two goals the other night, when Mats Zuccarello rang up three assists, when Benoit Pouliot added two more helpers, all of it meant that New York's Brassard-Zuccarello-Pouliot line has now accounted for a fairly unforgivable 25 points in nine Rangers-Penguins meetings this season, including the playoffs.

Kreider's goal might have signaled a return to special-teams sanity, but Brassard's goals were validated back-breakers, the first a falling, sprawling backhand that forced home a rebound in the first period to make it 2-0, the second the one that answered Evgeni Malkin's show-stopping 1-on-2 cadenza that briefly pulled the Penguins within one.

Through four regular-season meetings, five playoff meetings, 11 goals, 14 assists and all kinds of mounting evidence that the Penguins have no answer for these three Rangers skating in unison, Brassard said he has seen no real attempt at an adjustment from Bylsma.

"Five on five, not really, there's been no adjustment," Brassard said. "He doesn't really match lines. When you play them, you're going to see four lines. If you don't see [Sidney] Crosby, you'll see [Brandon] Sutter, whose a great shutdown forward. [Joe] Vitale's the same way. They don't try to match anything [because] they're a good team. They have world-class players on their team and they're well coached."

Uh-huh, but now, five games into this, Brassard has three times as many goals as the world-class Crosby has in the full length of the postseason (1), and so maybe the other thing the Penguins ought to have learned is that there's no utility in continuing to allow Rangers defenseman Marc Staal to punch Crosby in the head with impunity.

Staal got in a couple more shots in Game 5 and you couldn't help but notice that by the middle of the third period with New York about to go ahead, 5-1, Crosby was skating at about 4 mph.

"It happens," Staal was telling writers in the Rangers' room after another of his pretty dreadful defensive performances. "It's just part of the way a playoff series goes."

Perhaps, but not without at least the risk of retribution. I see no Penguin with anything to say to Staal on the ice, not even when he drilled Crosby in the back of the head in front of the New York net in Game 4.

There may be no tangible, tactical advantage in some administration of justice on Staal, and indeed it comes with some risk on the penalty summary, but there's no prudence whatsoever in the free range the Penguins are affording the Brassard line.

There was so much room in the Penguins end for those guys in Game 5 I really thought I might see the three of them ice fishing at one point. Sit down on some milk cartons. Open some cold ones. Probably still get two goals and three assists.

If you see them in town Tuesday, watch out.

Teams against whom the Penguins have won the most games in their postseason history:

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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