Put aside all the talk about being a Stanley Cup contender again: The Rangers are now on the brink, one loss from being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
The Blueshirts had no answers to a dominant Penguins effort Thursday night and lost at home in the playoffs for the fifth straight time, 5-0. They dug a deep hole by falling behind 3-0 in a ghastly first period and trail three games to one in the best-of-seven series, with Game 5 in Pittsburgh tomorrow.
Led by their two stars, Evgeni Malkin (two goals and two assists) and Sidney Crosby (two assists), the Penguins brought the Blueshirts to their knees and left the home crowd stunned.
Malkin’s blast on the power play zipped by Henrik Lundqvist for a 4-0 lead at the four-minute mark of the second period. It was the second of three power-play goals as Malkin scored again early in the third. At that point, it was the Penguins’ seventh goal in 17 man-advantage opportunities in the four games. That one was against Antti Raanta, who relieved a dejected Lundvqist at 6:04 of the second period.
“It’s definitely uncharacteristic of this group to come up with this type of performance,” tight-lipped coach Alain Vigneault said. “I don’t think it was a matter of a lack of will. We just picked a very bad night to have a very bad game.”
Vigneault would not comment on Lundqvist’s subpar play. “This is definitely a team loss. I’m not going to single out any individual,” he said. “As a whole group, we had a hard time, and the results went accordingly.”
Lundqvist was blunt, however: “Obviously, it’s my job to be there when we have breakdowns, and I was not good enough today.”
It was only the fourth time in 114 playoff games that he allowed three goals in the first period, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. “All we can do now is go to Pittsburgh with a mindset that we have to win that game or the season is over,” Lundqvist said.
Penguins rookie goaltender Matt Murray, 21, starting his second consecutive game, stopped 31 shots. He has turned away 47 of 48 shots in the last two games.
“We’re disappointed, angry. It’s frustrating,” Mats Zuccarello said. “We’ve fought back before, but we have to find a way to score some goals. We have to stay positive. We’re not going to get anywhere thinking negatively.”
If watching the four games hasn’t been enough to see the difference between the two clubs, check the stats. The Rangers have seven goals in four games; the Penguins have 14. On the power play, the Blueshirts are 1-for-16; Pittsburgh is 7-for-18. The Penguins have 123 shots on goal; the Rangers have 113.
The hottest team in the league in the final three months has not cooled. The Penguins came out decisively, with Eric Fehr barreling into the post after putting in a rebound of Ben Lovejoy’s shot at 1:09 that Lundqvist left for him to pounce on. Patric Hornqvist was credited with his fourth goal of the series when Malkin’s long wrister deflected off his leg, the right post and in at 7:11 with Rick Nash in the box for interference.
Conor Sheary extended the lead to 3-0 when he stole the puck from Kevin Klein, raced down the left side and beat Lundqvist cleanly on his blocker side from above the left dot with 3:48 left.
The second period didn’t start much better with Lundqvist having to kick out a shot in the first minute, and he then made an outstanding glove save on Hornqvist on the door step at 3:28.
The Rangers didn’t establish anything, from beginning to end. “We got behind early and it was tough to get it back going,” Eric Staal said. “We talked quickly after the game to make sure everyone has a response to have a big pushback in Pittsburgh.”