NEW YORK -- Is it just me or have you noticed a troubling trend that has developed in the Penguins-New York Rangers playoff series? Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist outplayed the Penguins' Marc-Andre Fleury Sunday night in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden in a season-extending 3-1 win. He did the same thing Friday night in Game 5 in Pittsburgh, a 5-1 Rangers win.
This is not good at all for the Penguins, who must play a Game 7 they never saw coming Tuesday night at Consol Energy Center. They won't just have to deal with a suddenly energized Rangers team that believes in miracles. How did New York coach Alain Vigneault put it? "We're going to Pitt for Game 7. We've got a chance." The Penguins also will play with the realization that they will be remembered for one of the franchise's all-time postseason collapses if they lose and blow what was a seemingly secure 3-1 edge in the series.
Pressure, pressure, can you feel the pressure?
"Nothing matters but the next one," Penguins captain Sidney Crosby said. "We can't change it. We're in the situation we're in."
This also is not good for Fleury, who thought he had brushed aside his playoff demons -- perhaps for good -- with superb play late in a first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets and then early in the series against the Rangers. But those demons were back and very noticeable the past two games. They will haunt Fleury again if he doesn't come up big in Game 7.
Did someone mention pressure?
"No, no, you don't," Fleury said when asked if he will change his approach. "Go home. Get some rest. Look at some tape. Skate tomorrow. Get ready for the game."
The Rangers still have life, in large part, because of Lundqvist's brilliance.
That isn't to underestimate the impact of Rangers winger Martin St. Louis, who played the past two games after the unexpected death of his mother, France, 63, Thursday. His father and sister were in the Garden seats Sunday night -- Mother's Day -- and saw him score the first goal on a deflection off his body just 3:34 in.
"It was such a beautiful moment," Lundqvist said. Added Rangers center Derek Stepan, "It's probably one of the cooler things I've been a part of in my professional career. The emotion on that goal is something that I will never forget."
That's understandable. But Lundqvist played a bigger role in the past two games. That was no surprise. He is 9-2 with a 1.35 goals-against average and .967 save percentage in his past 11 playoff games when the Rangers faced elimination.
Lundqvist made spectacular saves to take away goals from Marcel Goc and Brian Gibbons in the second period Sunday night to protect a 2-1 lead. The only goal he allowed came when the rebound of a shot by Brandon Sutter went into his net off the skate of Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein.
Lundqvist did the same sort of thing in Game 5. He stopped excellent scoring chances by Chris Kunitz, Gibbons, Crosby and Goc. The only goal he gave up was the result of a sensational effort by Evgeni Malkin, who split two defensemen and, from a bad angle, knocked in the rebound of his initial shot.
Lundqvist stopped 67 of 69 shots in the two wins.
"You need somebody to be able to bail you out when the mistakes are there," Vigneault said. "Obviously, we can't play a perfect game and, with the firepower they have on the other side, they're going to get some looks and get some chances. When they do, we need Hank to step up and stop the puck."
Fleury wasn't nearly as good in either game. That was a bit of a surprise Sunday night because he usually plays well in big games at the Garden. He stopped 48 of the Rangers' 50 shots in Games 3 and 4, both wins. In his career, he was 3-1 with a 1.75 goals-against average and .943 save percentage in postseason games here.
Sunday night, Fleury allowed a backhanded shot by Carl Hagelin to sneak under his right arm that gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead at 6:25 of the first and forced the Penguins to try to play catch-up. "That was a hole we couldn't dig ourselves out of," coach Dan Bylsma said. Friday night, Fleury gave up a short-side goal to Chris Kreider and a long slap-shot goal to Ryan McDonagh. Even going back to Wednesday night late in Game 4 -- a 4-2 Penguins win -- he allowed a bad short-side goal to Mats Zuccarello.
This isn't the time to be giving up bad goals.
Tuesday night definitely won't be the time.
If there is good news for Fleury and the Penguins, it's that he already has bounced back in these playoffs from a few rough moments. Remember his problems late in regulation and then in overtime in a 4-3 loss to the Blue Jackets in Game 4? He played superbly the next two games to send the Penguins to Round 2, then was virtually unbeatable in the first four games against the Rangers. He had consecutive shutouts in Games 2 and 3.
The Penguins need that Fleury to show up for Game 7.
"Right now, we need everything from everybody," Bylsma said. "We need everybody's best."
Most of all, the Penguins need it from their goaltender.
Fleury doesn't have to win Game 7 by himself, but he needs to outplay Lundqvist.
If the current troubling trend continues, it's going to be a long, hard offseason for the Penguins.
Ron Cook: email@example.com. Ron can be heard on the "Cook and Poni" show weekdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on 93.7 The Fan.
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