In a pin-drop silent dressing room, Henrik Lundqvist sat at his stall, holding his face, then covering his ears, in his hands. His countenance was red, as if he had wept.

Was it embarrassment? Was it frustration?

Earlier in the evening, he had stared at the ceiling for what seemed an eternity after yielding a third period individual rush goal to Mike Rupp which turned out to be the game-winner .

It was another night and another dispiriting loss for the Rangers, who were competitive-but-ultimately-not-in-the-same-class-as the Stanley Cup Champion Penguins, 5-2, Monday night at the Garden. The loss was the Rangers’ third in a row.

Rupp, the ex-Devil, recorded his first career hat trick, and Sidney Crosby, fresh off of a five-point effort against the Rangers Saturday night, left Midtown with two goals and an assist.

With the game tied at two 8:46 into the third period, Rupp picked up the puck in Pittsburgh’s end and rushed unmolested into the Rangers’ zone before ripping a bullet past Lundqvist (28 saves) to give the Pens a 3-2 lead. A Crosby deflection at 15:51 increased the lead to 4-2 and Rupp iced the game with an empty-netter with 40 seconds remaining.

“It’s a three-on-two initially, but Higgy (Christopher Higgins) is back above the blueline and Rosy (Michael Rozsival) even takes a look. It’s really an even strength rush coming across and that’s what we need to close out. I thought he played a pretty good up until then. For some reason he sunk into the middle and the guy basically walked in,” was John Tortorella’s analysis of the Rupp’s game-winner. “We make a key mistake at a key time, the puck’s in our net and costs us the game.”

The Rangers (13-13-1) will be off until Saturday, when they travel upstate to take on the hot-as-can-be Sabres. They will then come home for a Sunday night date against the Red Wings. Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik, who had a two-goal night and leads the league with 21, offered their belief that the break will be good for the Rangers’ fragile psyche.

“It is good to have four days without games. We really need to try to get away for a bit and come back. It is a long season. We just have to regroup,” Gaborik said quietly.

“We will take it as a good thing. You have to see as positive as you can right now,” added Lundqvist. “Maybe it is a good thing to get a break and take a step back to see what you can do as a team, and individually, how we can get better.”

If Tortorella agreed with his stars’ assessment of what the Rangers need, he wasn’t exactly proselytizing. “Yeah. They’re off tomorrow and we’ll get back to work the following day,” Tortorella said in a terse press conference.

Dating back to their October 14 4-2 home win over the Kings, the Rangers are 8-12-1, have been outshot 575-559 and outscored 67-53. In that time, the Rangers fell from a top four spot in the East to 10th in the conference.

“It’s discouraging. I thought there were a lot of good things for a lot of minutes of that game. But right now we’re just not figuring out how to win it,” Tortorella lamented. “That’s the fine line between winning and losing in this game.”

Last night’s match was the back end of a home-and-home with the Penguins (19-9-0). Pittsburgh won 8-3 Saturday night. The Penguins were missing forward Matt Cooke, who was suspended Sunday for his upper-arm check to the head of Rangers’ rookie center Artem Anisimov in Saturday’s match. Suspended for two games, Cooke missed last night’s rematch and will not be in the lineup for Thursday’s home game against Colorado.

Without Cooke, who was challenged by Donald Brashear and later fought Ryan Callahan Saturday night, the game was emotional but not a 21st Century version of Slap Shot.

The potent Penguins outshot the Rangers 11-9 in the first, but were unable to find the back of the net. It was the first time since the third period of the season opener for both teams that the Rangers held Pittsburgh without a goal in a 20-minute stanza. Still, the Pens outshot the Rangers 33-31 for the game.

Marian Gaborik’s 20th goal of the season opened the scoring 3:12 into the second. Inexplicably left alone in front of Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury (29 saves), Gaborik snapped a shot, then slammed home the rebound to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead. The lead lasted all of 11 seconds. Crosby scored off the faceoff with a high backhand shot over Henrik Lundqvist to tie the game at one. Rupp broke the tie 4:10 later by jamming a puck past Lundqvist stick-side. Gaborik’s power play stuff at 18:45 of the period tied the game at two and set the stage for Rupp’s third period game-winner.


The legendary Wayne Gretzky was at the game with his wife, actress Janet Jones. Rangers great Mike Richter was also at the Garden.

Last night’s game marked the regular season home debut of prized rookie defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti. The New Jersey-bred blueliner had skated in last weekend’s road losses to Tampa Bay on Friday (5-1) and Pittsburgh (8-3) on Saturday. Sanguinetti finished -1 with a penalty in 11:20 of ice time.

Dan Girardi was called for boarding Rupp in the third period. Rupp was helped off the ice, but returned to the bench with 12:55 left in the period. Said Penguins coach Dan Bylsma of Rupp’s performance. “To be honest, when we looked at his stats when we talked over the summer, I expected to see more. I’m not surprised to see him being a factor in the offensive zone, being around the net and driving to the net, and being a physical force. That’s kind of what we thought we were getting. His first goal and a lot of his goals have been around the net.”