PITTSBURGH -- We all knew that the fatigue factor was going to be a storyline this series, and it took only two games for the questions to begin.
Following the New York Rangers' 3-0 loss in Game 2, a defeat in which the Blueshirts fell victim to a commanding Pittsburgh Penguins performance, the disadvantage of a compressed schedule was thrust to the forefront.
Sunday was New York’s fifth game in one week, and the Rangers are due for another quick turnaround when the two teams clash Monday night in Game 3 at Madison Square Garden with the series tied at one game apiece.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault clearly doesn’t want his team leaning on that as an excuse, especially after the brilliant effort from goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Though it was Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury who recorded a shutout while Lundqvist was saddled with the loss, the latter may have been the best player on the ice Sunday.
“Did my goaltender look tired?” Vigneault challenged. “He was on top of his game. He wasn’t tired. I don’t think anyone else should be tired. He’s played every minute of these playoffs so if he’s not tired no one else should be.”
Lundqvist was phenomenal in making 32 saves against an energetic, physical and agitating Penguins team that elevated its game following a lackluster showing in Game 1. The former Vezina Trophy winner, who made his 75th consecutive postseason start for the Rangers, stood on his head in the second period. He stoned Chris Kunitz on a solo breakaway and stopped Sidney Crosby in the crease, looking poised to steal the game for a Rangers team that was otherwise outclassed.
But the Penguins kept pushing and were rewarded in the middle frame, when Penguins defenseman Kris Letang's shot deflected off Dan Girardi's stick for a 1-0 lead at 10:26. The Penguins didn’t allow themselves to get comfy with that lead, either. They kept buzzing and pelting Lundqvist with shots.
“I think he was probably their best player,” said Penguins forward Jussi Jokinen, who gave the Pens a 2-0 lead later in the second period. “He made some great saves and gave their team the chance to win. We know an elite goaltender but even how good he is we need to keep putting shots on the net and finding those rebounds.”
While the Rangers were the better team in the opener, stunning the Penguins with a dominant first period in Game 1 and edging them for a 1-0 series lead in overtime, Pittsburgh answered the bell Sunday night. The Penguins played big, heavy hockey, asserting themselves physically and wreaking havoc around the net.
Their top players were sensational, too. Crosby effectively snuffed out the nagging questions about his health, delivering the type of explosive game that would convince any critic even if his goal-scoring drought stretched to 13 games. Evgeni Malkin, whose game resurfaced in Game 6 of the Penguins’ first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets last Monday, was similarly engaged. He finished with a goal and an assist.
“They just spent a lot of time in our end,” Lundqvist said. “That was the biggest difference.”
Lundqvist has been remarkably steady for the Rangers since the playoffs began, but the Rangers may have wasted his first truly lights-out performance on Sunday night. He didn’t get nearly enough help from his teammates and nowhere was that failure more conspicuous than on the team’s sputtering power play.
The embattled unit continued its nosedive in Game 2, failing to cash in on all four opportunities with the man advantage, three of which came in the first 9:04 of the first period. The Rangers will take a dreadful 0-for-29 streak into Monday’s game, a failure for which Vigneault blames himself.
“Power play, ultimately, is my responsibility and I’ve got to find the right trigger points here to make it work,” Vigneault said. “I’m going to spend the rest of the night trying to figure it out.”
If that’s the case, the coach may not get much sleep on the flight back to New York. His team won’t get much rest, either, with Game 3 less than 24 hours away. Maybe there’s some benefit to the quick return to action. Or maybe that’s just what the Rangers have to force themselves to believe in order to endure what has been a borderline absurd schedule.
“You just have to tell yourself it’s good,” Lundqvist said. “There’s no other way. It’s fun to be out there. It’s been a lot of hockey, but you just have to tell yourself it’s a great opportunity to come home and play the first home game of Round 2. Now it’s just about recovery and preparation. We’ll be ready to go.”