NEW YORK—When the going gets tough, the Pittsburgh Penguins do everything but get tough.
When things go sideways for the Penguins their immediate response is to take frustration-based, selfish penalties and get away from the style of play that has consistently brought them success.
That was the case again Sunday night at Madison Square Garden, as the New York Rangers jumped to a quick 2-0 lead they would never relinquish in a 3-1 victory that forces Game 7 at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.
The Penguins made a strong push to close the gap to 2-1, but once the Rangers added a third goal late in the second period, the Penguins seemed more interested in seeing who could commit the dumbest, most-selfish penalty.
"I don’t think that’s why we lost tonight," Sidney Crosby said. "We put ourselves in a bad position early on and fought hard to try to get back."
There's some truth to that, but the team's captain left out the part about him losing his mind during one eventful shift in the final moments of the second period. It involved a stick to the most sensitive area of Dominic Moore, a slash of Henrik Lundqvist, a borderline slew foot of Dan Girardi and a tussle with Brian Boyle that resulted in both Crosby and Chris Kunitz sitting in the penalty box to start the third period.
There's a fine line between sending a message and letting one's frustration boil over in a game that was not yet decided, and Crosby clearly crossed over to Frustration Junction before the second intermission.
It left the Rangers on a power play to start the third period, which of course netted nothing, but James Neal joined the penalty party as he is prone to do with a lazy tripping infraction about a minute later. Matt Niskanen expressed remorse about slamming his stick on the ice and disrespecting a linesman as the Penguins were called offside when he was unable to keep the puck in the zone, but it was yet another glimpse at the team's mindset during difficult times.
This was all in a two-goal game during a postseason in which two-goal leads are about as safe as a kidnapper is from Liam Neeson, yet the Penguins were letting their emotions show every time a call or a bounce went against them.
"Frustration, that's a tricky word," Niskanen said. "If it leads to uncharacteristic things, uncharacteristic plays and penalties, then it's bad. I think tonight, you saw it lead where we had a real desperation to be aggressive and go after them. Our compete level was really high when we were down 2-0. We had a really good push in the second half of the first period, battling like heck to get back in the hockey game and we couldn't score.
"But, frustration…let's have a better start so we don't cross that bridge again. If we do, just lay it all on the line."
The subtext in Niskanen's thoughts on the team's frustration levels is the first goal in Game 7 could mean the series. For all the Penguins' talent and skill, their maturity level in recent years when facing animosity leaves a lot to be desired.
In last year's conference finals against the Boston Bruins, the Penguins fell behind 1-0 in Game 1, hardly anything at which to bat an eye. Yet there was Evgeni Malkin fighting Patrice Bergeron late in the second period. With Malkin sitting for five minutes in the penalty box to start the third period, the Bruins increased the lead to 2-0 and never looked back.
The Bruins used physicality (and winning, of course) to rattle the Penguins, who never recovered and lost the series in four games.
The Philadelphia Flyers gave the league a blueprint for getting under the skin of the Penguins in a first-round upset in 2012. The Penguins unraveled in a fight-filled Game 3 and looked more interested in running Flyers through the boards than making a run to the Stanley Cup Final, and it resulted in their season ending in six games.
It'd be unfair to ignore Marc-Andre Fleury's contributions to those playoff disappointments; he was leakier than a bullet-riddled canoe in 2012, had to be yanked in favor of Tomas Vokoun in 2013 and wasn't great Sunday.
Fleury was a shaky as ever against the Rangers in Game 6, allowing a soft backhand goal to Carl Hagelin that made it 2-0 and fumbling away a puck in the second period that led to Derick Brassard's fourth goal of the series that gave the Rangers a 3-1 edge.
Really, really bad goal for Fleury to allow. Was a 2-on-1 initially, but still.— Josh Yohe (@JoshYohe_Trib) May 11, 2014
It seems every time there is a crack, be it in the Penguins' armor or in the game of Fleury, the floodgates open and the team drowns.
"You have to draw upon past experience," coach Dan Bylsma said. "We did it for Game 5 and 6 as well. There are things you take from all of those experiences we've had, even the ones we didn't win in. You certainly think you have to get ready for what's going to be a big game.
The last time the Penguins had a 3-1 lead in a series that was pushed to a seventh game, it was against the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2011. The Lightning left Consol Energy Center with a 1-0 win in Game 7, although the Penguins were missing Crosby and Malkin for that series, making it almost moot as a comparison to this series.
Martin St. Louis was a member of that 2011 Lightning team and scored the first goal of Sunday's game. He offered an emotional celebration on this Mother's Day that was befitting of a man who lost his mother to a heart attack on Thursday, a sign the Penguins may have had no chance under these circumstances.
The Rangers have harnessed that negative emotion and turned it into a positive. The Penguins could take a lesson from the Rangers on handling adversity.
The Penguins pitched a clean-slate spin on this loss, saying nothing that happened in Games 5 and 6 of this series should matter entering Game 7. But with history repeating itself yet again and so many of the same characters involved in those losses still on the cast sheet and the Rangers' 4-0 record in Game 7s since 2012, it's a tough sell.
"I think (we're a) little frustrated because our team isn't used to falling behind so quickly," defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "I thought we had more energy tonight, but they get two bounces that go your way and can be a little frustrating as a team but we have to have confidence in what we do as a group. It has gotten us to this point and if we play it the right way, it'll get us to the next round."
If the Penguins don't have that good start, don't be surprised if their ship sinks in a hurry and Bylsma goes down on it.
All statistics via NHL.com.
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