PITTSBURGH - In a bit of a role reversal, the Penguins, who went to the Stanley Cup Finals last season, find themselves in a position similar to the Rangers' predicament after the All-Star break for the past two seasons. Pittsburgh is on the cusp of the playoffs with a serious run needed to make them.
To twice earn a playoff spot, the Rangers played desperate hockey but also got some breaks. Last night it was one of those fortunate bounces -- or call it a loss of focus by Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist -- that opened the gates for five Penguins goals in the third period and a 6-2 loss, the Rangers' second defeat in 10 days here.
After the Rangers unleashed 18 second-period shots on Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped them all to preserve a 1-1 tie, that one play sent the Rangers reeling.
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 for a 2-1 lead. The fans at Mellon Arena weren't waving the "terrible towels" of the last matchup, but certainly raised the volume. When Kris Letang wristed Sidney Crosby's slot pass by Lundqvist's short side at 6:18, the die was cast.
It wasn't the way Lundqvist wanted to return from Sunday's All-Star appearance. He won four of his last five starts and allowed just eight goals in that span. He did make some brilliant saves in the first 40 minutes, including stabbing his left pad to the post to deny a cutting Pascal Dupuis, who was set up by Crosby.
The Penguins, who hadn't played in eight days, fielded a lineup with several returnees, including Crosby (knee), who skipped the All-Star game. Dupuis, who missed the last seven games, stepped in on the No. 1 line with Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
The Rangers, playing the second game of a back-to-back, seemed to lose a step in the third, and then it all fell apart.
The first 20 minutes were more engaging than the entire Jan. 18 game against the Penguins, a 3-0 shutout for Fleury. In a scrap three seconds after the opening faceoff, the Penguins' Eric Godard slipped in a right uppercut that briefly buckled Colton Orr's knees.
At 2:24, the Rangers' Nikolai Zherdev scored his first goal in 14 games with a nice inside move on Rob Scuderi. It came after a pass from Brandon Dubinsky on a two-on-one when Ryan Whitney fell inside the blue line. Sykora tied it in a scramble in front at 6:35 with his second goal in the past two meetings. A kneeling Lundqvist, who stopped the initial sharp-angle shot, was bumped by Chris Minard cutting through the crease, but there was no call.
In the second period, the Rangers, with the benefit of two power plays, turned up the pressure but couldn't finish. After the Rangers consistently kept the puck inside the zone, gloving down clearing passes, Maxime Talbot flipped the puck into the stands for the Rangers' third power play with 9:30 left.
Fleury's best stop came a little later, when he turned away Aaron Voros with his right pad after a dish from Zherdev on a 2-on-1.
The Rangers (29-17-4) remained in fourth place in the Eastern Conference, but tossed away an opportunity to tie Washington with 64 points for the No. 2 spot. Even a point would have tied the Devils for third. And the next stop isn't easy. The Rangers visit Boston to face the East-leading Bruins Saturday afternoon. Chalk this one up as a meltdown, and a lost opportunity.