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Hartnett: Rangers Losing Grip On Atlantic Division

Streaking, Rejuvenated Penguins Closing Divisional Gap
Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in front of Marc Staal of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

Sidney Crosby of the Pittsburgh Penguins skates with the puck in front of Marc Staal of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden on March 15, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)

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‘Rangers Inside And Out’
By Sean Hartnett
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No excuses, the New York Rangers must figure out a way to measure up to the Pittsburgh Penguins.

The Penguins have extended their win streak to 10 in a row.  They’re now sitting 4 points behind the Rangers in the race for the Atlantic Division and overall Eastern Conference lead with a game in hand.

Henrik Lundqvist, Ryan Callahan and Michael Del Zotto were scratched again due to various ailments and several other Rangers such as Artem Anisimov and Brian Boyle paid a physical price throughout Thursday’s 5-2 defeat.

Injuries aside, the Rangers simply couldn’t gain enough puck possession against the Penguins.  Even when a healthier Rangers’ lineup faced Pittsburgh at the Consol Energy Center on February 21, they struggled to break up the Penguins’ strength on the puck and dangerous cross-ice passes that led to easy scoring opportunities.

Even had Lundqvist played in net on Thursday, the Rangers’ defensive breakdowns occurred far too often.  Martin Biron may have given up five goals, but he was left high and dry by the lackluster play in front of him.

“Their execution is pretty good, and I think they come in a lot of waves and a lot of four-man attacks.  So their execution and their transition is key for them,” Biron explained.

He continued, “Against a team like Pittsburgh, I think the more you have the puck, the better it is. They had it more than we did. They managed it well, they controlled it well and that was the difference.”

Head coach John Tortorella shared his thoughts after the sobering loss.  “We had some struggles, struggles on the backend as far as their quickness and they capitalized.  It doesn’t take them too many chances to score some goals and they certainly showed that tonight,” he stated.

Defensive mistakes have become a trend whenever the Rangers meet the Penguins.  There is a reason why Tortorella appears to sound overly-demanding after certain victories.  Comfortable, high-scoring wins over weaker opponents can sometimes gloss over positioning and puck-handling errors made by the Blueshirts.

Marc Staal admitted the Rangers lacked sharpness.  “With a team like that, you’ve got to be sharp for a full sixty minutes and we weren’t.  It cost us early.  We couldn’t find a way to sustain for the rest of the game,” Staal told reporters post-game.

Tortorella holds his players to a high standard and had cameras been present inside the Rangers’ locker room during the second intermission, you would have likely heard Tortorella demanding the Rangers to get their heads in the game.

Stu Bickel had a game he’d like to forget.  He was a minus-3 on the night and took an undisciplined 4-minute high-sticking penalty that tired the legs of his teammates.  To his credit, Bickel stood in front of his locker and projected confidence going forward. He believes the Rangers will bounce back quickly.

“I think we have a good group of guys in here with good attitudes and their heads are on straight.  When you have off-nights like tonight, it’s important to bounce back right away instead of letting it become a downhill slope.  I feel like we’ll respond and we have great leadership,” Bickel explained.

It’s crucial for the Rangers to respond right away against the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday.  The Penguins were already riding high before they entered MSG and are now at full health following the return of Sidney Crosby and Kris Letang to their lineup.

Once the injury bug clears up for the Rangers, it will certainly be a boost but more importantly, they need to cut down on their miscues and quit shooting themselves in the foot.

Is the Rangers’ Atlantic and Eastern Conference lead slipping?  Can the Rangers hold onto their lead or will the Penguins finish first overall in the East?  Share your opinions below and send your tweets to @HartnettWFAN.