The three-game winning streak the Rangers took into Sunday night’s game in Pittsburgh had been built against two reeling clubs, the Buffalo Sabres and New Jersey Devils. So their matchup against the Penguins represented a step up in class.
Mika Zibanejad’s third goal of the season (and first at even strength) gave the Rangers the lead 1:18 into the game. But the Penguins blitzed them with three goals in 61 seconds late in the first period, chasing goaltender Alexandar Georgiev, and scored twice late in the third period to beat the Blueshirts, 5-1.
"A big problem for us was our defensemen, on these flips . . . we were just way too puck-conscious in the neutral zone, not really alert,’’ coach David Quinn said. "We gave up three or four breakaways tonight because we’re playing the puck and we’re not keeping the body between the net and the offensive player — just basic things.’’
Because of the rescheduling of some games after the Devils, Sabres and Flyers had COVID-19 outbreaks, this was the first time the Rangers had played a back-to-back set this season. Quinn didn’t want to use that as an excuse for their defensive deficiencies, though.
"I’m gonna say it was more mental,’’ he said. "I thought we didn’t have enough fight in us in the third [period]. Part of that was Pittsburgh doing a good job just keeping things simple and not taking any unnecessary chances. They made it hard on us. But we’ve got to fight harder to get inside. We’ve got to play a little bit faster. We’ve got to get more pucks to the net. And we just didn’t do much of that at all in the third period.’’
With Igor Shesterkin out because of a groin strain, Georgiev started for the second day in a row. After Georgiev earned the victory in the Rangers’ 6-3 win over the Devils on Saturday, Quinn opted to come back with him to see if he could get into a rhythm. But he pulled Georgiev after he allowed successive breakaway goals by Kaspari Kapanen at 16:52 and Sidney Crosby at 17:14 of the first period.
Farmingville native Keith Kinkaid came in after Crosby’s goal, making his Rangers debut and playing in his first NHL game since October 2019, when he was with Montreal.
Kinkaid signed with the Rangers as a free agent in October and had been on the taxi squad all season. He did play two AHL games for Hartford before the Rangers called him to the active roster after Shesterkin was injured late in Thursday’s game against the Devils.
Kinkaid stopped the first 14 shots he saw — many of them difficult saves — before Evgeni Malkin finally beat him at 13:57 of the third. Zach Aston-Reese converted a rebound at 16:37 of the period to make it 5-1.
Kinkaid allowed two goals on 18 shots in 42:25.
The Rangers played their seventh game without forward Artemi Panarin, who remains away from the team on leave.
Defenseman Jacob Trouba returned to the lineup and played 21:32 after missing eight games with a broken thumb.
"The thumb felt good,’’ he said. "Obviously, there’s a break, so it takes a little bit to get back. But we played a pretty solid first period as a team and kind of had a bad stretch for two minutes, and that cost us.’’
The teams will play again on Tuesday before the Rangers conclude their longest road trip of the season with games against the Bruins on Thursday and Saturday.