It was a situation that was not going to end well for the Rangers even with the best efforts of Anton Stralman and Henrik Lundqvist.
The Penguins were in full flight. Matt Cooke carried the puck up the right wing wall as Deryk Engelland steamed up the middle while Richard Park filled the left wing lane.
Stralman sprawled to the ice as his renowned teammate moved right to left to eliminate the angle. It did not matter as Cooke shoveled a pass to Engelland, who tapped it over to Park. A moment later, the Penguins were gathered en masse in the left wing corner celebrating what turned out to be the game-winning goal in the Rangers’ 4-1 loss to Pittsburgh.
“It’s hard [with a] 3-on-1. I tried to buy some time [by holding] the middle,” Stralman said of the game-deciding play which began with a bad pinch by Marc Staal.
The Rangers have alternated wins and losses in their last six games heading into Saturday afternoon’s heavyweight match in Boston against the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
“It’s hard on Hank [since there’s] usually a one-time shot from either side,” Stralman added. “I didn’t know what to do.”
The efforts of Stralman and Lundqvist (32 saves) on Park’s goal equaled those of their teammates for the first and third periods. Good, but not good enough. The Rangers came out flat to open the game and were unable to match the Penguins in the third. Pittsburgh outshot the Rangers 36-31 for the game, including 27-21 in the first and third periods.
“We didn’t have the start we wanted. They came out pretty hard and obviously it was not the start we wanted to have,” Ryan Callahan said. “I thought we had a pretty good second period and we felt pretty good going into the third period. Then early on they get that goal and we didn’t find a way to sustain pressure or get any chances. Against a team like that you can’t do that and win.”
The teams started the third tied 1-1. Chris Kunitz popped home a Paul Martin rebound 3:16 into match after Ruslan Fedotenko missed on a one-timer from the goal mouth. Carl Hagelin tied game 10:06 of second period.
But the Rangers could not match Pittsburgh after Park’s goal. Hart Trophy candidate Evgeni Malkin scored twice — he now has 24 goals this season — in a span of 11:10 to put the game away. Malkin and linemates James Neal and Kunitz were dominant, combining for three goals, three assists, six points and were a collective plus-five.
Benefitting the two long-time Atlantic Division rivals, last night’s match was a mean-edged affair, highlighted by Stu Bickel’s first period decision of Eric Tangardi, and a sequence involving Brandon Prust and Paul Martin in which the Rangers left wing and Pittsburgh defenseman exchanged gloved punches behind Fleury’s goal and Martin slashed Prust in the calf when the two found themselves by their respective benches.
“We need a little more of that from the get-go,” Mike Rupp said. Rupp, whom the Rangers signed from Pittsburgh as a free agent over the summer, punched Malkin in the face during a second period scrum. “That’s a team you have to go through in the Eastern Conference. [We’ve] got to get a little more hatred [for them].”
Last night’s loss was the Rangers’ first in three games this season against the Penguins. There are three games remaining between the teams.
Follow Rangers beat writer Denis Gorman on Twitter @DenisGorman.