Originally written on The Rangers Tribune  |  Last updated 1/19/12

After last Sunday’s 4-1 loss to the Montreal Canadiens, despite the obscenity of it, you could say that the New York Rangers were still in first place so it was a game that the team could just put behind them and move on. While the Blueshirts will want to do the same after tonight’s loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Madison Square Garden, there still has to be a little more concern than there was after the Montreal game. Why? Because the team has now lost three of their last five games and hasn’t been playing as well as they did in December.  The bleeding needs to stop soon before matters grow worse. 

Once again, the Rangers came out flat in front of their home crowd and were being dominated by the Penguins in all areas of the ice. Henrik Lundqvist was forced to make some early saves, but Chris Kunitz would eventually find the back of the net on a rebound that came off the rush.

The play started down by Marc-Andre Fleury, where Ruslan Fedotenko completely missed a tap-in pass he received from Brandon Dubinsky. Ryan McDonagh was beat along the boards when trying to pinch, but Brian Boyle dropped back with Dan Girardi to even things up. Boyle stayed with his man (Kunitz) until Paul Martin took the original shot, which was when Kunitz was left wide open in front. I’ve been told to stay with my man until the whistle since pee-wee’s… apparently Brian Boyle was not.

Defenseman Stu Bickel then swung the momentum the Rangers’ way by beating the life out of Eric Tangradi in a rather quick one-sided bout that had the crowd going. New York applied pressure and gave Pittsburgh fits in their own zone, but Fleury was up for the challenge and stopped everything that was thrown his way in the first period.

The Rangers carried their momentum into the second stanza, and eventually got on the board and tied the game on a beautiful exchange between Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin. Gaborik, while skating through the neutral zone, softly backhanded a pass into the air and over the blue-line, where Hagelin used his speed to pick it up and send a shot through the legs of Fleury to make it 1-1. 

While that goal got the Rangers back into the game on the scoreboard, it was only for half a period as things turned into a disaster in the third. At 2:23 of the third, the Rangers again were caught with a defenseman in deep and the Penguins took advantage by coming down and scoring on a 3-on-1. As Tortorella pointed out after the game, there was very little backcheck effort from the team on that play, and that’s something we normally do not see from them. Plus, I felt as if Henrik Lundqvist should’ve made the save on that play, but that’s just me.

About five minutes later, Marc Staal made a mental error along the boards in his own zone when trying to play the puck using his skate. Unfortunately, he kicked it right to the stick of Evgeni Malkin, who make a strong move to the net and around Lundqvist to put a backhander upstairs and give the Pens a 3-1 lead. Malkin would later score the empty-netter to put a wrap on Pittsburgh’s 4-1 victory.

For the Rangers, there were only three players that really stood out in a positive way to me tonight; Henrik Lundqvist, Marian Gaborik and Carl Hagelin. Lundqvist made 32 saves on 35 shots, and while I believe he should’ve stopped Richard Park’s go-ahead tally early in the third, he still kept the Rangers in the game for long a while. The Blueshirts played poor defensively tonight, which is a tremendous no-no against a team like the Pens. Lundqvist was left out to dry tonight, and for the most part, he held his own. 

As for Gaborik and Hagelin, they combined for ten shots on goal in the game, which was a third of the Rangers’ 30 total shots they put on net as a team. Imagine that, there are twelve forwards on the team, and just two totaled more shots than they other ten combined. That, coupled with weak defensive play, is not a winning formula against the Pittsburgh Penguins and the Rangers know that.

I think that’s what makes a loss like this so frustrating – the Rangers knew what they had to do in that third period in order to win the game, but they came out and did the opposite and were steamrolled. In a close game, stupid mental errors are going to cost you more often than not, and the Rangers made too many of those in high traffic areas tonight. Coach Tortorella may have hid it in his postgame presser, but he has to be slightly frustrated with his club for losing a game on mental mistakes.

I’m already taking heat on Twitter for making sort of a big deal about this loss, and I probably will on here as well, but my expectations for this hockey team are very high. I know what they are and aren’t capable of doing, and I know damn well that they were capable of winning this game tonight. The second half of the season is just not the time to slack off and start losing games on foolish errors. I know I cannot expect five and seven game winning streaks all of the time, and I’m not looking for that, either. But I do expect the team to play to their max for 60 minutes every night, and they didn’t do that in this game.

They better be counting on a more complete effort in Boston on Saturday otherwise they will be embarrassed. Plus, they will be defending the top spot in the Eastern Conference as well. That will be, by far, the biggest game of the season to date. 

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