NEW YORK -- Alain Vigneault finally said what everyone has been thinking.
After repeatedly shutting down questions about fatigue, dismissing all notions of wear and tear, the New York Rangers coach admitted the truth -- so his players didn’t have to.
“We were forced to play a stupid schedule,” Vigneault said following the Rangers’ 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night at Madison Square Garden, his club’s second straight shutout defeat, which has New York now trailing 2-1 in the second-round series.
No one will argue with the absolute absurdity of what the Rangers have endured in transitioning from a seven-game set against the Philadelphia Flyers to their semifinal matchup against the Penguins -- a whopping six games in the past nine days, five in the past seven.
Players can insist they have energy in abundance at this time of year, but it’s becoming pretty evident that is not the case. Had it been, would Vigneault really have inserted three new faces into his lineup Monday in an attempt to give his squad some fresh legs?
Still, the Rangers are not completely faultless in the scheduling mess, either. They could have, and should have, dispatched an inferior Flyers squad much sooner. Instead, they relinquished a series lead on three separate occasions, dragging it out to a grueling Game 7.
Tired or not, the mark of a good team is its ability to weather adverse circumstances -- costly injuries, blown calls, compacted schedules -- and the Rangers have not been able to do that in the past two games.
“We have to dig deep here,” said Henrik Lundqvist, who gave up two goals, both of them on breakaways.
While the Penguins’ elite players are emerging, with Marc-Andre Fleury posting back-to-back shutouts and Sidney Crosby finally snapping a 13-game goal drought, the Rangers’ stars have been underachieving.
Even top-pair defenseman Ryan McDonagh, whose game was as consistent and reliable as it gets in the regular season, has had some serious struggles at points during the 2014 playoffs.
Vigneault issued a clear challenge to his team before Game 3, saying that the Penguins’ “big boys” had put their “big-boy pants on” and that he needed his stars to do the same. That message was received, no doubt.
“He’s challenging us and we need more from everybody,” McDonagh said after finishing Monday's game with only one shot on goal and a minus-1 rating in 24:48 of ice time.
The Rangers' power play continues to flounder -- yes, even after the agitated Garden crowd begged the players to “SHOOT THE PUCK!” -- as the embattled unit was stopped on all five opportunities. (They have now been stopped on 34 straight attempts.) The fourth man-advantage actually showed glimpses of improvement with extended zone time and a number of good looks, but the unit’s impotence was magnified after Jussi Jokinen's second-period goal, which came just as he emerged from the penalty box after the expiration of his holding-the-stick penalty.
“I think that’s about awareness, just making sure we talk out there when they had the fifth guy coming out. We need to communicate better,” Lundqvist said. “At the same time, I need to try and stop the puck. It’s tough. You have two good players coming down at me and you try to be patient, but they beat me with two pretty good shots.”
The Rangers actually did an excellent job limiting the Penguins in the third period, holding them to just one shot. New York outshot the Penguins 35-15 overall but has been unable to solve Fleury in the past two games.
The Rangers were initially considered to have a distinct edge in net, but they now face the possibility that Fleury could actually be the goaltender that steals the series.
“You might be frustrated right now, but it does no good,” veteran center Brad Richards said. “We are in the middle of a series, and out of those three games, we played two real good ones.”
The Rangers are going to have to be better than good. The Penguins kicked their play up a few notches after a demoralizing loss in Game 1. Since then, they have rallied back with two straight victories. For as much as momentum has been hard to nail down during the postseason, Pittsburgh seems to have a hold of it right now.
The Penguins are a confident team, and the Rangers must be sensing a significant shift. For the first time this spring, they are trailing in a series. Forget the physical demands of the team's frenetic schedule -- what about the mental toll this stretch has taken?
The Rangers are doing their best to project a sense of calm right now, but you get the feeling some doubt is seeping into their collective psyche.
Whether they can get past those thoughts and trudge ahead is the biggest question heading into Game 4 on Wednesday.
Tired or not, the Rangers can’t afford to play tired now.
“We are going to score. That’s going to happen,” Richards insisted. “When we do, we’ll get momentum, and we have to ride it.”