The conditions were perfect, in theory, for the New York Rangers to take over their Metropolitan Division semifinal matchup with the Pittsburgh Penguins Tuesday night in Game 3. The Blueshirts were fresh off a convincing 4-2 victory over the Pens in Game 2. New York had captain Ryan McDonagh returning from a hand injury after missing the start of the post-season. And Pittsburgh was turning to Matt Murray, 21, for his first career playoff start in net.
But it wasn't to be. Murray, an elite prospect ranked 39th overall in THN Future Watch, showed no signs of jitters in his first game back from a head injury. He challenged shooters and made a few tough saves early. His lone hiccup came on this downright pretty Rick Nash goal early in the second period:
The Pens trailed 1-0 but tied the game late in the second period on something we may have never seen before: a "lucky" Sidney Crosby goal, in which the puck deflected off his stick past Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Veteran Matt Cullen, on the heels of a sneaky-good stretch run in which he scored 10 goals in 27 games, put Pittsburgh ahead for good 4:16 into the third with a breakaway goal of his own after tipping the puck between blueliners Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle to spring himself:
Kris Letang added an empty netter, and the Pens held on for a 3-1 win.
No team is perfect, and the Rangers' fourth consecutive home playoff loss isn't automatically reason for panic. But it was how Pittsburgh won that should have the Blueshirts sweating a bit. Murray was solid, especially tracking the puck through traffic. But that traffic came from the Pens 'D' clogging shooting lanes relentlessly to insulate their rookie stopper. Murray barely had to make a highlight-reel save. The Pens held the Rangers to 17 shots, including just four in the third period. Pittsburgh limited a team with Nash, Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider, Eric Staal, Mats Zuccarello, Kevin Hayes and Derick Brassard to four shots at home during a third period in which they trailed. Let that sink in for a moment.
The Rangers managed 37 shots on goal in Game 1, 28 in Game 2, 17 in Game 3. They're trending in the wrong direction and haven't capitalized on a Penguins lineup still missing its No. 1 goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury. Center Evgeni Malkin returned from an upper-body injury for Game 3, and while he was pretty much a non-entity, it stands to reason he'll improve with every game.
Mike Sullivan was named head coach of the Penguins Dec. 12, taking over for the fired Mike Johnston. In 54 regular season games from that point onward, Pittsburgh posted the second-best 5-on-5 score-adjusted Corsi rating in the NHL, behind only the Los Angeles Kings. With Crosby catching fire offensively in the New Year, it's no surprise the Pens were second in Corsi For per 60 over that span. But it's just as significant that they finished second in Corsi Against per 60, too. They are the best team in the Eastern Conference at generating chances and limiting chances. That's scary news for a Ranger team that struggled in the possession game all year.
Pittsburgh stymied the Rangers 58/42 in Corsi in Game 3, it should get better contributions from Crosby and Malkin soon, it could still get Fleury back from his concussions soon, and it just took back home-ice advantage. Needless to say, Game 4 is huge for the Rangers. Coach Alain Vigneault must find a way to penetrate a Pens team playing strong defense at every position right now.
Matt Larkin is a writer and editor at The Hockey News and a regular contributor to the thn.com Post-To-Post blog. For more great profiles, news and views from the world of hockey, subscribe to The Hockey News magazine. Follow Matt Larkin on Twitter at @THNMattLarkin