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Pens, with three in third, throttle up-and-down Blueshirts, 4-1

Henrik Lundqvist #30 and Dan Girardi #5 of

Henrik Lundqvist #30 and Dan Girardi #5 of the New York Rangers defend a first period shot against Evgeni Malkin #71 of the Pittsburgh Penguins. (Jan. 19, 2012) Credit: Jim McIsaac

Before we get to the gamer, here's Torts with a post-game dose of reality:

"They fed it to us in the third... Our team has to understand that if we are going to have a record like we have, teams are going to start looking for you and they are going to be ready to play and we weren't."

"We're alternating through here. I guess everybody is used to those five-game winning streaks, those seven-game winning streaks. It's not going to be easy. It's going to be a grind through a couple months. I think our players understand that. I don't think we played poorly tonight. For a space of five minutes, we had some bad reads, some brain-dead reads, and a couple struggles. (The Penguins) are that quick and that good and they beat us."

And Henrik Lundqvist, looking ahead to Saturday:

For a while, when we were winning a lot of games, we did all the little things really well---that's what we have to come back to....It doesn't get much tougher than that---trying to beat Boston in Boston."

So, could tonight’s Penguins-Rangers game have been a preview of Saturday’s showdown between the Blueshirts and Bruins for first-place in the Eastern Conference?

The 4-1 victory by the Penguins, who scored three times in the third period at Madison Square Garden, had all the elements: quality goaltending, referees letting physical and chippy play continue and momentum swings.

It was the fourth consecutive win for the Penguins, who are without injured Sidney Crosby and Jordan Staal. But they have plenty of impressive players, including defenseman Kris Letang, who returned after a 21-game absence, played a team-high 24:17 and contributed an assist; Chris Kunitz, who scored the opening goal of the evening, and the league’s leading scorer, center Evgeni Malkin, who finished off the Blueshirts with a beautiful goal at 7:10 of the third period and an empty-netter.

Malkin, who has 54 points, scored his sixth and seventh goals in the last four games. The first came when he skated around a sliding Michael Del Zotto and roofed a backhander while cutting in front of Henrik Lundqvist, who made 32 saves.

To be sure, defensive breakdowns cost the Rangers.

Richard Park gave the Penguins a 2-1 lead at 2:23 of the period, finishing off a 3 on 1 break from the left side while Marc Staal pinched with three forwards deep. “I was going down when they were coming up,” said Staal. “It was the wrong move. I was feeling pretty good tonight, it was a mental mistake.”

Staal played a season-high 26:02 as coach John Tortorella limited rookie defenseman Stu Bickel to 5:19 and Anton Stralman to 11:59. Staal has admitted that he is not quite comfortable yet after playing just eight games. He missed training camp and the first 36 games of the season with concussion symptoms.

So the next stop for the up-and-down Rangers, who have 62 points but have lost three of the last five, is Boston for a Saturday matinee. The teams are separated by a point, with the Bruins (61 points) beating the Devils last night.

The Rangers power play, ranked 24th in the NHL, continues to struggle, with players having trouble getting shots. The units were 0-for-2 and are 0-for-14 and 1-for-27. Before the game, Tortorella called it a “double-edged sword”, because 5 on 4 goals might help some players who are slumping, but not generating anything is debilitating in close games.

With the Penguins leading 1-0 in the second period, Lundqvist denied Craig Adams alone on the doorstep and rookie Carl Hagelin tied the score shortly after. Ryan McDonagh fed Marian Gaborik along the right side of the neutral zone and the winger flipped a backhanded pass to Hagelin, who was streaking toward the left faceoff circle. His wrister squeezed between Fleury’s pads at 10:06. That was the lone highlight.

The Penguins dominated early and took a 1-0 lead at 3:16 when Kunitz’ rising rebound shot hit the water bottle under the crossbar.

“It’s not the start we wanted to have,” said Ryan Callahan. “We didn’t find a way to sustain any pressure. We didn’t get the dumps we needed to; they got the puck out of the zone pretty easy. Throughout the year, we’ve responded after losses and we have to make sure we do the same going into Boston.”

New York Sports