This most definitely was not what the Rangers had in mind when they looked ahead to starting calendar year 2014 and the second half of this season's schedule: a 5-2 defeat at the hands of the streaking Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night at CONSOL Energy Center.
Coming off back-to-back wins over the Lightning and Panthers down in Florida, and with team captain Ryan Callahan back in the lineup after a nine-game injury absence, the Rangers were outplayed in all phases of the game by a Penguins team that now has an Eastern Conference-leading 61 points already on the season and which now owns a league-best 18-3-0 record on home ice. Even missing nine players---including Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang---from its lineup due to injury the Penguins rolled to their tenth win in their last 12 games.
The Rangers have now split the first four games on their five-game road trip, which concludes Saturday night in Toronto. They fell back to .500 at 20-20-2 overall, and now trail Pittsburgh by 19 points in the Metropolitan Division.
Pittsburgh scored four times in the first two periods of play, and all four goals came following New York turnovers. Henrik Lundqvist had little to no chance on each score, most notably on Sidney Crosby's blistering backhander while left all alone in the slot with 1:31 to play in the second period, the goal that landed New York in a 4-0 hole. Crosby, the league's leading scorer, had a goal and two assists and now has 62 points on the season.
Chris Kunitz, who opened the scoring at 13:09 of the first period when a puck bounced off Crosby's skate and directly to him alone at the right post for a power play goal, also recorded a three-point night for the Penguins. Kunitz added another goal---his 23rd--with 7:06 to play after the Rangers had climbed back into the game and were only trailing 4-2. Jussi Jokinen also scored twice, his 10th and 11th goals of the season.
The Rangers surrendered two goals apiece in the first two periods, prime opportunities all, on only 17 shots. The visitors managed some good scoring chances, as well, but could not sustain their pressure against Marc-Andre Fleury, even though they were out-shooting Pittsburgh. Rick Nash and Brad Richards led the team in scoring chances and shots on goal--Nash had six shots, Richards four--but both veterans saw their recent struggles to finish continue. Nash has one goal in his last ten games, while Richards is without a goal in his last dozen.
Mats Zuccarello finally broke through for the Rangers on a right-wing shot 7:43 into the third period, assisted by Benoit Pouliot and Derick Brassard. Four minutes later a Zuccarello wrist shot was deflected past Fleury by Ryan McDonagh at 11:53 and the Rangers were back within two goals of the Penguins. However Kunitz's second of the game iced for the Pens at 12:54.
Zuccarello now has a team-high 30 points on the season, and he is tied with Chris Kreider for the team lead with ten goals. McDonagh's goal was his seventh of the season, equaling his career-high.
The game took its toll physically on the Rangers, too. Derek Dorsett blocked a heavy shot with his leg in the first period and was forced from the remainder of the game. Afterwards head coach Alain Vigneault announced that Dorsett had suffered a broken fibula and would miss the next 4-6 weeks of action.
McDonagh twice was run hard into the boards and was slow to get back to his feet, though he never missed a shift. Marc Staal was kicked in the midsection and briefly missed some time early in the third period. And John Moore was bloodied on his upper lip when checked into the boards by Deryk Engelland in the final period of play.
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