PITTSBURGH - With two straight wins in Florida, 2013 ended with a bang for the Rangers, but the new year started with a whimper.
The Eastern Conference-leading Penguins exposed the Rangers' defense early and often in Friday night's 5-2 Pittsburgh win. Ryan Callahan's return after missing 23 days with a knee sprain didn't provide much spark and Derek Dorsett broke his leg while blocking a shot.
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The Penguins are blessed with a top trio of Sidney Crosby, Chris Kunitz and James Neal -- a line that Henrik Lundqvist called "probably the best in the league" -- and they totaled three goals and seven points. Combined with depth from a quality farm system, the Penguins took a 4-0 lead into the third period before Mats Zuccarello and Ryan McDonagh scored. But Kunitz's second goal at 12:54 ended any threat.
"In the first period, we were letting them impose their will on us and we weren't doing anything to bring our game to them," said Marc Staal, who was victimized by a couple of unfortunate bounces.
Added McDonagh: "We were kind of standing around watching."
After Matt Niskanen's shot bounced off Crosby's skate in front, then Derek Stepan's stick, Kunitz swept the puck into a half-empty net at 13:09 of the first. From behind Lundqvist, Brian Gibbons -- one of the AHL players called up from Wilkes-Barre -- set up the wide-open Jussi Jokinen, without any coverage from Rick Nash, for the first of his two goals, a snap shot off the far post at 18:40. Jokinen made it 3-0 at 1:09 of the second and Crosby, with an incredible rising backhander from the lower right circle, beat Lundqvist high on the glove side at 18:29 after Staal couldn't handle a rolling puck.
In the third, Zuccarello scored on a wrist shot from the right side at 7:43. It was the 10th goal for the winger, who took the shot that McDonagh tipped in at 11:53 to make it 4-2. Zuccarello has four goals and five assists in the last eight games.
But Kunitz scored his second from a scrum in front a minute later after the puck bounced off Staal's shin, and Lundqvist could only look heavenward in frustration.
"I'm just disappointed, not surprised," said Lundqvist (23 saves). "Unfortunately, it was just too easy for them to create the big chances . . . It starts with good structure in our own end; we kind of just beat ourselves. They're going to hurt you if you're not 100 percent."
With the lead, the Penguins (30-12-1, 18-3 at home) got physical, leaving Dan Girardi and McDonagh getting up slowly after checks.
In the second and third, the Rangers did generate some pushback, and not only with 27 of their 35 shots on Marc-Andre Fleury. Callahan raced in to confront big Deryk Engelland, who collided with John Moore and left him with a bloody lip. With 3:43 left, Crosby wrestled McDonagh to the ice after a hit.
The Rangers (20-20-2) beat the Penguins, 5-1, at Madison Square Garden on Nov. 6 and lost, 4-3, in a shootout on Dec. 18. But last night, the poor coverage in the defensive zone was costly.
"Too many turnovers at our blue line, at their blue line," Nash said. "We've got some things we've got to clean up and have stronger starts, starting against Toronto Saturday."