PITTSBURGH - Just when the Rangers, after running off a 5-1-1 streak, seemed ready to persuade their fans that they might actually be a big-time team, they unraveled. Quickly. Horribly. Completely. Right down to their All-Star goaltender.
"I just played terrible, that's what happened," said a distraught Henrik Lundqvist, whose early-third period gaffe turned a 1-1 tie into a 2-1 Penguins lead. It opened a crack in the dam that turned into a five-goal torrent and an ugly 6-2 loss at Mellon Arena last night.
"The first two periods, I played pretty good, I think," said Lundqvist, who stopped only 11 of 16 shots in the third as his teammates provided more giveaways than a going-bankrupt department store.
"I made a mistake on the second goal, and then they get a power play," Lundqvist said in a quickly vacated visitors' dressing room. "I just lost my game in the third totally, that's definitely not good enough. I didn't stop the puck. I'm so upset with myself right now. I tried to stay focused, it just happened so fast.
"I got away from the things I have to do, the small things that make a big difference in my game. I don't know what happened. Right now, I could destroy this locker room."
It wasn't the way Lundqvist wanted to return from Sunday's All-Star appearance, in which he surrendered six goals in 20 minutes. After all, he had won four of his last five starts, allowing only eight goals.
Penguins center Jordan Staal, with Michal Rozsival draped on him behind the goal line, slid a harmless backhander toward the net that banked in off Lundqvist's left skate at 1:11. The fans weren't waving the "terrible towels" of the last matchup here Jan. 18 - the day of the Steelers' AFC Championship Game - but certainly raised the volume.
"They seemed to get energy from their second goal, no doubt about that," said Markus Naslund, whose frustration boiled over with 2:28 left in the game when he high-sticked Ryan Whitney after a blind-side check.
"We changed the way we played. Instead of playing as a team, we started to do one-on-one, started turning pucks over. We have to protect ourselves from being a team that unfolds. We have to play the same way. Good teams do that."
For the final 20 minutes, the Rangers were miles from a good team. When Kris Letang wristed Sidney Crosby's slot pass by Lundqvist's short side at 6:18, the die was cast. It was one of Crosby's three assists, and his goal with 1:40 remaining gave him four points.
Sykora and Letang each scored twice for the Penguins, who blanked the Rangers, 3-0, 10 days ago. After Sykora's second score from the doorstep on a five-on-three at 10:01 of the third - the Penguins' third straight goal in 8:50 - the crowd gleefully chanted "Go home, Rangers."
"What Henrik's doing is taking responsibility for himself, and I admire that," coach Tom Renney said, "but there's 18 skaters who better step up and do the same thing.
"Coaches can take the same responsibility. Him taking the loss upon himself is B.S. He's a great goaltender, one of the best in the league. Henrik has been there more often than not for us."
After being competitive for 40 minutes, the second goal, Renney said, "didn't unnerve us. We kind of just carried on. We needed to be a little more disciplined. Instead, we tried to do some dangerous things in the offensive zone - cross-ice passes, passes with your back turned to the slot. It cost us the hockey game."
The Rangers (29-17-4) barely remained in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, and the next stop isn't easy. The Rangers visit Boston to face the East-leading Bruins on Saturday afternoon. Chalk this one up as a unnerving meltdown.
Rangers at Boston
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