Ron Cook: Penguins' desperation meter starts toward red

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Penguins fans were unanimously thrilled when the New York Rangers knocked out the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. This was for a couple of reasons. One, the Philly hockey fan base — the most despicable in sports — got what it deserved, an early exit by its team. And two, it made for an easier second-round series for the Penguins, who have been owned by the Flyers and generally play much better against the Rangers.

Well, there’s nothing wrong with reveling in Philadelphia’s misfortune. They really have awful fans there. But the Rangers an easier opponent? You know what they say about being careful what you wish for. The Rangers are better than the Flyers with better goaltending and better defense. Shame on the Penguins for taking a fast start against ’em for granted.

Before the Penguins-Rangers series began Friday night, much had been made about how the schedule was going to destroy the Rangers. Game 1 was their third game in four nights after they had played Games 6 and 7 against the Flyers Tuesday and Wednesday nights. The Penguins, who hadn’t played since Monday night when they eliminated the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games in their first-round series, were supposed to be the rested, ready team.

Or so the Penguins thought.

There is no excuse for it, but the Penguins clearly fell into the dangerous trap of thinking they merely had to show up for Game 1. Defenseman Rob Scuderi admitted he was surprised by the Rangers’ early “jump,” which led to a quick 2-0 lead and, ultimately, their 3-2 win in overtime.

“I thought they were a little more prepared and they were going right off the bat,” Scuderi said. “We were kind of hoping to get on them and make them play a lot in their D-zone, which we eventually did later on in the game. But it would have been nicer to do it from the start.”

Penguins coach Dan Bylsma described the first period as a “50-50” period. That would have been alarming even if it were true. The Rangers’ Benoit Pouliot scored just 5:04 in on a re-directed shot off Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen’s stick, which Bylsma called “unfortunate” for goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. They got their second goal at 17:03 of the first when Penguins defensemen Olli Maatta and Niskanen followed New York forward Carl Hagelin to the corner to Fleury’s left, allowing Hagelin to get the puck to teammate Brad Richards alone in front. Richards had about six weeks to go from his backhand to his forehand to score. The Rangers took that 2-0 lead into the first intermission and had roughly a 95-5 edge in play.

But even if it had been a 50-50 period, would the Penguins have been proud of it? How could they not be prepared from the start? That’s on Bylsma. How could the team have no jump and focus when they dropped the puck? That’s on the players.

Many of the same problems that were there in the Columbus series were there again. The Penguins were outhit, 26-23. They lost the faceoff battle, 35-32. They had a staggering 11 giveaways, and that doesn’t count Scuderi turning the puck over in overtime to Pouliot behind the Penguins net, leading to the winning goal by Derick Brassard.

Penguins star Sidney Crosby had another lousy performance after playing better in Games 5 and 6 against Columbus, failing to get a point and finishing minus-3. He didn’t score a goal for the 12th consecutive postseason game. Teammate Evgeni Malkin, though skating well, had only two shots on goal after ending a nine-game playoff goal drought with a hat trick in Game 6 against the Blue Jackets. Lee Stempniak and James Neal scored the Penguins goals in the second period, just the second of the playoffs for Neal, who has been among the team’s many underachieving stars.

“It’s disappointing, but it’s over. We’ve already turned the page,” Scuderi said. “We lost the first one. Now, we get ready for the next one.”

The schedule still is a huge — almost unfair — advantage for the Penguins. Game 2 is tonight at Consol Energy Center, Game 3 Monday night at Madison Square Garden. That means the Rangers are looking at five games in seven nights. Not just games, but postseason games, which are at least twice as intense as regular-season matches.

“I still think it might be to our benefit, but we have to take better advantage of it,” Scuderi said.

It would be nice if the Penguins played a 60-minute game, something they have yet to do in these playoffs, although they came close in Game 5 against Columbus. “Push” into the New York zone, to use Bylsma’s word. Get an early lead. Make the Rangers play catch-up hockey, which is much harder hockey to play.

You know, like the Rangers did to the Penguins in Game 1.

“You have to expend a lot of energy to come back,” Scuderi said. “You play your top two lines more. You don’t get to use your full bench as much. You do what you have to do to get back in it.”

The Penguins got the goals from Stempniak and Neal but appeared to be the more spent team late, especially in overtime. Scuderi predicted greater intensity from the Penguins from the start in Game 2. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said he expects as much.

“It won’t be difficult [to match that intensity]. All we’ve done is won one game,” Vigneault said.

If the Rangers make it two wins tonight, the schedule, suddenly, will work against the Penguins. They will have to win four of the next five games to advance. That almost certainly won’t happen. Not with three of the games in New York. Not against a really good team with great defense led by goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

“You want to play with desperation all the time,” Scuderi said. “But once you lose one game when you know that four losses can knock you out, the grip of death on your season kind of sets in. You really do start to play with a little more desperation.”

It had better happen for the Penguins tonight now that the Rangers have grabbed their attention. If it doesn’t, they and their fans soon will have something distasteful in common with the Flyers and their nasty fans.


Ron Cook: Ron Cook can be heard on the “Cook and Poni” show weekdays from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.

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