Pens take Game Three 3-1: Awful third puts Rangers in trouble


Cullen.jpg

Matt Cullen beats Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway for the game-winner in the Pens’ 3-1 win against a dismal Rangers in Game 3. AP Photo/Frank Franklin II/Getty Images

Normally, I would’ve had this game review done a couple of hours ago. However, after what was an awful third period, I couldn’t find the motivation to write about what I saw from this team. It was despicable. Disappointing. Uninspiring.

For two periods, the Rangers played the Pens on even terms both on the scoreboard and in style. Then came an atrocious final 20 minutes that were unexpected. How bad was it? They only managed four shots and totaled just 17 on Pittsburgh rookie Matt Murray, who needed to make 16 saves to win his NHL playoff debut. The Pens wanted it badly. They were more desperate.

Matt Cullen supplied the only goal in the third on a terrible communication breakdown between Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle, who bumped into each other- causing the game-winner with Cullen getting the better of Henrik Lundqvist on a stoppable five-hole shot for a well earned Pens’ 2-1 win in Game Three. The Pens took back home ice and now lead the best-of-seven first round series 2-1.

What that means for the Rangers is doom is around the corner. If they don’t get it together on Thursday and play a full 60 minutes or maybe more like their lives depend upon it, they could be sent packing by the weekend. The effort was there for 40 minutes. What happened afterwards was a flat out disgrace. In a tie hockey game at MSG, they again managed to look disjointed. The Pens got the only goal and dominated the entire third out-shooting the Rangers 11-4.

Here’s the ugly truth about these Rangers under coach Alain Vigneault. They have now dropped four straight postseason games on home ice. Dating back to last year’s bitter conclusion of the Eastern Conference Final in which the Lightning posted consecutive shutouts in Games 5 and 7 at The Garden, the Rangers have been outscored 6-1 in the last three losses. They have totaled one goal in nine periods at home. Unacceptable.

In fact, over the four straight home defeats, opponents have now outscored them 12-3. Even more alarming, the Rangers have failed to score over two goals in their own building over the last seven home playoff dates. The last time they reached three was all the way back on May 2, 2015 in a 3-2 win over the Caps in Game Two of last year’s Eastern Conference Semifinal.

Whether they want to admit it or not, offense has been a problem for the Blueshirts at MSG in the playoffs. Part of it is the style they play. Under Vigneault, they rely mostly on their speed and skill by scoring off the rush- utilizing the stretch pass. When it’s not working due to an opponent clogging the neutral zone as the Lightning successfully did and the Pens did tonight, the end results are ugly.

After only testing Murray with 13 shots in two periods, they barely mounted an attack in the third when all they had to do was win a period on home ice. Something they couldn’t do against the Lightning in Game 7 last year. The only offense came from Rick Nash, who was easily their best skater. His shorthanded goal at 39 seconds of the second gave them a 1-0 lead. Off some strong work from Marc Staal and Kevin Klein, Nash took a perfect Klein outlet and raced in down the left wing and fired a laser that beat Murray far side for his first of the series.

At the time, Chris Kreider was off for a silly boarding minor in the offensive zone. He was one of the more consistent forwards doing a good job physically and using his speed to create dangerous chances in transition. If only he could’ve hit the net on one. He missed the net four times with his final chance narrowly missing from the slot with over two minutes left in regulation. The Rangers didn’t get another sniff due to the Pens’ relentless checking.

Kreider also had a goal wiped out on another coach’s challenge. This one came midway through the first period. Ruled a goal on the ice, the Pens challenged for offside. Unlike the challenge they lost on Derick Brassard’s big go-ahead tally in Game 2, they won this one. At the time, the Rangers were on a four-minute power play due to a Connor Sheary double minor for high-sticking. The offside was on J.T. Miller with the video replay confirming that his skate wasn’t down.

The reversal came during the first half of the man-advantage. The Rangers managed to accomplish nothing the remaining three-plus minutes. Instead, the Pens got momentum from it. Their aggressive penalty kill took the Rangers right out of what they wanted to do. The final part was downright ugly. They couldn’t even gain the zone.

Following the kill, there was a post-whistle scrum. Four players were involved. Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang, Kevin Hayes and Viktor Stalberg all went off for roughing. Despite some open ice, neither side scored in the first with the Pens holding a 9-6 edge in shots.

The second was tighter checking. There wasn’t a lot of room on the ice. Both teams did a solid job defensively. They each did what they wanted in terms of limiting chances. The only offense came from Nash with Kreider in the penalty box. His shorthanded goal was a beauty. It was his 11th career postseason goal which came at 39 seconds of the second.

Despite limiting the Pens offensively, the Rangers were unable to get that next goal on Murray. I felt they had to get it but it never came. They were too fancy. Too many instances where they had good rushes but players passed up opportunities to shot by over passing. Dominic Moore did this a couple of times, which really annoyed me. He’s a fourth line center. If you have a chance to shoot on a 21-year old rookie goalie in his first playoff game, shoot the puck. It wasn’t only him. But he didn’t play well throughout and Vigneault kept sending him out shift after shift.

Hayes was even worse. He barely played getting fewer shifts (12) and minutes (8:27) than Tanner Glass (14 shifts-8:39). Glass was more noticeable but there’s no way Hayes should play that little. He’s part of the top nine. The second-year forward was supposed to be part of the solution on the third line with Eric Staal and Jesper Fast. But for whatever reason, Vigneault didn’t like what he saw. To be honest, they didn’t have a good game. Neither Hayes nor Staal had a shot. Fast had a couple and of course was engaged. But 16 shifts and 11:23 of ice-time is hardly enough for the hard working Swede.

Vigneault didn’t have a good night behind the bench. In a panic move, he brought back a less than 100 percent Ryan McDonagh. Why, I have no idea. I wouldn’t have rushed him back. If you gain a split the first two games, it should buy you time. I would’ve saved him for Game 4. Instead, McDonagh paired with Brady Skjei, who shifted to the right side. While his skating was fine for two periods, he couldn’t shoot the puck and took a couple of bumps from the Pens. The captain played 27 shifts delivering five hits with a minus-one rating in 22:48.

Nobody question’s McDonagh’s commitment. This is about the coach, who shows way too much loyalty to his vets. He stayed too long with Dan Girardi and now he’s basically finished. He brought back Mac Truck in a tie series when he could’ve gone back to the lineup that worked in Game 2. Was it really such a bad thing playing the bigger, more physical Dylan McIlrath? Hell. I would’ve considered dressing him over Boyle, whose brain cramp resulted in Cullen’s game-winner.

It is what it is. At the end of the day, this is who Vigneault is. A loyal coach who sticks to his guns. What does it spell for Thursday? Please don’t tell me a way below healthy Girardi or Raphael Diaz, who hasn’t played an NHL game all year. Just keep Skjei in. Let him get the experience. He was fine for two periods but struggled in the third. For the night, he received 24 shifts and was even in 19:53.

I didn’t quite get why Vigneault flipped Skjei back to the left side to work with Kevin Klein, who didn’t have it. He then had McDonagh with Marc Staal, which makes no sense at all. Speaking of Staal, it wasn’t his night. He took two penalties with a lazy second one costing the Rangers dearly.

Still nursing a one-goal lead with nothing happening, Staal reached out and hooked down Carl Hagelin with one minute remaining in the second. Hagelin gave Staal a shove. These two are friends but there are no friends at this time of year. Hagelin had nowhere to go. The needless penalty proved costly. It took the Pens all of 18 seconds to score with Sidney Crosby scoring his usual skilled deflection off the stick on a backdoor feed from Phil Kessel, who remarkably has been their best forward. An ineffective Evgeni Malkin earned the secondary helper. He has looked out of sorts and only played a shade over 13 minutes.

So, instead of going to the locker room with a one-goal lead, the Rangers were tied. They once again allowed a goal in the final minute of the period. On Crosby’s tally, he beat McDonagh for the nifty redirect for his second of the series. Nobody is better than that than him. Boy, did it come at a bad time. It took the crowd right out of it.

In the third, the refs let some stuff go. That included an undetected Kris Letang two-hander to Stalberg’s face. Many fans and even bloggers complained about it. I’m not gonna. The Rangers had shown nothing on their other four power plays. They gave you zip in the third. What difference would it have made? They stunk. Plain and simple. Outworked. Outclassed. Out-hustled. Out-coached. There were zero adjustments from Vigneault until it was too late. He waits too long. It’s his MO.

That’s why I have never been a big fan of him. He did the same thing with the Canucks taking them to within a game of the Stanley Cup. We all know what happened. Vancouver lost badly to Boston getting shut out. They then had some very disappointing early exits in which they failed to score. The same thing seems to be happening under Vigneault here.

Letang, who played a wonderful game aside from the missed slash- potted the empty netter with 13 seconds remaining. The Rangers never came close after pulling Lundqvist. It was a hockey clinic by the Pens under coach Mike Sullivan. That’s why they’re up in the series.

I hope they prove me wrong. Game 4 is a must win. This isn’t 2014. There is no Martin St. Louis to rally around. If they don’t bring it tomorrow, they’ll be booking tee times by Sunday.

BONY 3 Stars:

3rd Star-Kris Letang, Pens (empty net goal-1st of series, 8 shot attempts, 2 takeaways, 4 blocked shots in 29 shifts-26:32 including 22:07 ES, 2:18 PP, 2:07 SH)

2nd Star-Rick Nash, NYR (shorthanded goal-1st of series, sweet finish-played well, +1 in 26 shifts-18:26)

1st Star-Matt Cullen, Pens (breakaway winner at 4:16 was the difference-at 39 he still turns on the after burners, +2 in 24 shifts-14:01)

Notes: Total shots favored the Pens 31-17. A wide margin that just never should happen in such a critical situation. Pittsburgh out-attempted the Rangers 58-42. … The Rangers tried to play physical again out-hitting the Pens 41-30. But some of it was ineffective due to the Pens’ speed. The Pens hit back and played tougher than Game 2. … Blocked shots favored the Blueshirts 19-15. Nash led the way with three. … In an oddity, Marc Staal only saw the ice for 12:56 in 22 shifts. Vigneault went mostly with McDonagh, Yandle (21:54) and Klein (20:22). Skjei and Boyle (18:05) saw more time with the team searching for offense. … The Pens edged the Rangers on face-offs 25-22 led by Crosby (10-and-6). Moore led the Blueshirts going 7-and-3. Outside of that, he struggled yet got 12:23 in 15 shifts. It didn’t make sense. … Game 4 is Thursday night at 7 PM. … We’ll see what they’re made out of.

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About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included two stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil games. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has scored Berkeley Carroll basketball games since 2006 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. From players, coaches to administrators, it's a first class program. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree.
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