PITTSBURGH – There is nothing poetic or necessarily pretty about the way the New York Rangers play, particularly on the road.
The Rangers grind. They play defence. They block shots.
They make opponents pay for mistakes. It’s a formula that led New York to the league’s best record, one they returned to while restoring order in their first-round series with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Choking off the passing lanes and the open ice where Penguins’ stars Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin thrive, New York built an early lead behind goals from Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider then held on for a 2-1 win in Game 3 on Monday night to take a 2-1 series lead.
Game 4 is Wednesday in Pittsburgh.
“You come into this building and you know they’re going to play well,” Hagelin said. “It’s a great atmosphere. But we found a way. We wanted to win this game, and we did.”
Patric Hornqvist scored his third career playoff goal for the Penguins and Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 24 shots but Pittsburgh couldn’t overcome another slow start.
The Penguins managed just 11 shots through the first two periods and didn’t generate anything resembling consistent pressure on New York’s Henrik Lundqvist until they were well behind.
Lundqvist finished with 23 saves, including a dozen in the final 20 minutes.
“I thought we overpassed the puck early in the game for sure,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston said. “We came in and we had the pass back instead of the shot ahead. … You can’t look. You can’t wait. It’s got to be right to the net.”
The shots haven’t come often enough early enough for Pittsburgh, which has been outscored 4-0 in the opening period through three games, though that’s nothing new for teams that face New York.
The Rangers paced the NHL in first-period goals (84) and first-period goal differential (plus-30) during a regular season in which they claimed the Presidents’ Trophy and tied the record for the most road wins by an Eastern Conference team (28).
“I think our style permits us to play well on the road at times with the way we control the puck,” New York defenceman Ryan McDonagh said. “(We) make sure that we don’t give teams good opportunities and good looks and keep the crowd out of it.”
Pittsburgh had evened the series on Saturday night with a vintage performance they believed was a revival, not a last hurrah.
Crosby scored twice to end a lengthy post-season goal drought and the Penguins played with a purpose that has escaped them for long stretches during their erratic, injury-riddled season.
Given a chance to put the pressure squarely on the Rangers, Pittsburgh instead reverted back to the uneven play it’s been unable to shake the past five months.
New York overwhelmed the Penguins from the opening faceoff and Hagelin gave New York a 1-0 lead 8:43 into the game following a sloppy line change by the Penguins and a brilliant lead pass from Keith Yandle that split the Pittsburgh defence and let Hagelin break in alone on Fleury.
The slap shot from between the circles went between Fleury’s legs as the Rangers did their best to silence a surprisingly raucous crowd at Consol Energy Center. Not that the Penguins did much to generate any sort of enthusiasm.
Pittsburgh needed 15 minutes to record its first shot, a harmless flip from behind the blue line by defenceman Ben Lovejoy.
It drew a sarcastic roar but also seemed to shake the Penguins to life. Crosby hit the post with a one-timer following a pretty backhanded drop pass by Hornqvist, one of the few actual chances the Penguins created during a chippy and choppy two periods.
Kreider doubled New York’s lead 11:07 into the second when a Marc Staal blast from the point caromed off the end boards and right to Kreider on the doorstep of the net.
The goal came seconds after the Rangers appeared to get away with hooking Pittsburgh’s Maxim Lapierre while the fourth-line centre was on the penalty kill.
There was no call and when the Rangers made it back to the Penguins’ zone, Kreider darted to the net and swatted the puck out of the air and by Fleury.
Hornqvist prevented Lundqvist from earning his 10th playoff shutout by pounding a rebound into the New York net with 6:48 remaining but the Penguins — who never won a game while trailing after two periods all season — couldn’t make it all the way back.
“Our desperation level was much higher in the third,” Crosby said. “You saw the difference in our game and our play … but you have to find that level of desperation for the entire game.”
NOTES: The Rangers are 4-1 in their past five series that were tied after two games. … Both teams went 0 for 2 on the power play. … Pittsburgh’s scratches included F Beau Bennett, who sat in favour of Scott Wilson. Wilson was recalled from Wilkes-Barre/Scranton of the AHL last week.