Slow Start Dooms Rangers vs. Pens

BY SAM STERN, PINCH-HITTING FOR THE MAVEN

PENGUINS 7, RANGERS 2

The race in the Metropolitan Division is beginning to look more like a game of leap-frog.

It was an important game for both teams Tuesday night. The New York Rangers were atop the Metro heading into the divisional matchup, two points above the Pittsburgh Penguins. With the win, the Penguins, who have two games in hand on the Rangers, find themselves making the leap.

The defending NHL champions had their way with a Rangers team that was playing its fourth game in six nights. A slow start for the Blueshirts set the tone for a night that ended in a 7-2 Rangers loss in Pittsburgh.

The score was in no way indicative of the effort put forth by the Rangers’ “back-up” goaltender Antti Raanta, who made his first start since King Henrik’s return to the throne. Raanta’s otherwise herculean 40-save effort was futile in keeping the Penguins under a touchdown.

The Rangers couldn’t find their legs early enough. Whether it was from the heavy schedule or the massive amount of time spent penalty-killing over the last four games, the Blueshirt posse seemed two steps behind.

OVERVIEW: The season isn’t even half over, so there’s no reason to panic. However, the Penguins have now handed the Rangers their two worst losses of the season. If nothing else, this loss should serve to help the Rangers improve on some holes that are emerging in their game.

WHAT WENT WRONG

SLOW START: From the opening face-off, the Penguins controlled the pace of the game. They’d taken seven shots before the Rangers could even register their first. By the end of the first period, Pittsburgh had piled up 22 shots on Raanta.

SIN BIN: In the seven contests prior to Tuesday night, the Rangers had given up just one power play goal. Coming into the game, the Rangers had already been playing with fire, having taken 12 penalties over the previous three games. That trend continued as the Rangers took another five penalties against the Penguins.

KILLING ‘EM SOFTLY: For the first time this season, the Rangers gave up multiple power play goals in a single game. The high-flying Penguins exposed the overworked Rangers penalty-killing units, converting on three of their five opportunities.

BREAKING OUT: The Rangers struggled to get the puck out of the defensive zone. Meanwhile, the Penguins spent the entire night smothering Ranger puck carriers.

OUTGUNNED AND OUTSHOT: The Penguins piled up 47 shots, while the Rangers sent 28 the other way. After pulling to within one goal with 18 minutes left in the game, the Penguins lit the lamp four more times in the third, outshooting the Rangers 17-4.

WHAT WENT RIGHT

RAANTA: When a team gives up seven goals, goaltending generally isn’t listed as a positive. However, Raanta put forth a valiant effort for a Rangers team that conceded close to 50 shots. Most of the pucks that found their way past the Finnish stand-out would’ve been near-impossible to stop for any goaltender. Raanta kept the Rangers in the game for as long as he could before, and even after, the wheels inevitably fell off in the second.

GRAB(NER) A GOAL: Michael Grabner scored his team-leading 14th goal of the season last night. He went goalless in eight straight before he sniped one past Pittsburgh’s star rookie goaltender Matt Murray, two minutes into the third period. Were it not for two luckless breakaway attempts, the Austrian winger might have even notched his second hat-trick of the season.

NEXT STEPS

WIN FRIDAY: The Rangers haven’t lost two straight games in regulation all season and they can’t afford to do so now. The race in the Metropolitan Division is far too fierce to start losing games in bunches.

STAY DISCIPLINED: The opportunity to right the ship must be taken full advantage of. To do that, the Rangers will need to break their pesky habit of taking unnecessary penalties.

WHAT THEY SAID

ZUCCARELLO ON RAANTA: “[Raanta] gave us a chance and we didn’t back him up. No one was at their best today. It’s not good enough.”

ALAIN VIGNEAULT: “The schedule caught up to a few of our guys. We’ve got one more game before Christmas break. We’ll regroup, re-energize.”

MCDONAGH ON HIS TEAM’S START: “Each individual has to know what it takes for our team to be successful. We can’t afford to be sleeping at the start.”

BOTTOM LINE: The Rangers will have to put this loss behind them quickly as their next game is against a Minnesota Wild team that’s been firing on all cylinders lately.

NEXT GAME: Friday night vs. Minnesota on MSG with coverage beginning at 6:30 PM.

OUTLOOK: Wild coach Bruce Boudreau has his team at peak performance. The Wild have won eight straight games and boast a savvy veteran lineup that has proven to be among the league’s upper echelon.