By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers and the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins treated fans to a wild, rollercoaster of a game on Tuesday night that ended in the most heartbreaking of circumstances for the hosts.
Captain Ryan McDonagh turned the puck over behind his own net in overtime, allowing Pittsburgh’s Phil Kessel to feed Evgeni Malkin for the winning goal.
“A costly mistake, obviously huge. I obviously let the team down in overtime,” McDonagh said. “I mean, I should be able to make a read there and keep it on the boards instead of trying to go through them. A really, really bad hockey play by me.”
Though McDonagh placed the blame squarely on himself, there were far too many self-inflicted mistakes made by the Rangers as a team that led to the loss.
It was a sour defeat that sent the Rangers to a disappointing 1-5-1 record. While there were some encouraging signs for the Blueshirts to hang their hats on, the biggest takeaway was their failure once again to produce a 60-minute effort.
“We started off tonight not making the simple plays, but you have to like the way we battled back,” head coach Alain Vigneault said. “We came back real strong in the second and third. We carried most of the play, had a lead.
“At the end of the day, right now, it’s a little challenging as far as putting the whole game together for us, but this group is very accountable and is working extremely hard and I am very confident that if we keep doing a lot of the things we’re doing right now, we’re going to be on the right track,” Vigneault added.
At some point, the Rangers have to start producing start-to-finish efforts that allow them to be in position to win games. Fans are sick and tired of the clumsy first periods and mental errors. If the Blueshirts keep taking undisciplined penalties, keep making structural mistakes and continue to be careless with the puck, their place in the standings will not improve.
McDonagh got caught out position on Kessel’s opening goal in the first period. It was a blunder-filled night from the usually steady-as-it-gets captain. Then on Carl Hagelin’s goal later in the first, there was a lack of back-checking by multiple Rangers, not to mention poor structure.
The Rangers were given a gift when Sidney Crosby committed a four-minute high-sticking penalty and they took advantage. Pavel Buchnevich sniped power play goal number one, and then J.T. Miller rocketed another one home one minute later. Suddenly, the Blueshirts were up 3-2 and everything appeared to be turning their way.
Later, Crosby took another seat in the box, this time for slashing, and Hagelin took a copycat penalty three seconds later to give the Rangers a 5-on-3 power play.
But Chris Kreider lost his cool and took an undisciplined cross-checking penalty, which afforded Pittsburgh an abbreviated power play. Patric Hornqvist took advantage of the situation to even the score.
Kreider should know better than to take an offensive-zone cross-checking penalty with his team on a two-man advantage. It’s unacceptable. Vigneault said he felt that Kreider being nudged by Penguins goaltender Matt Murray caused the penalty. While there was contact from Murray, Kreider came down on Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin with a two-hander that’s going to be called 99 times out of 100.
“I mean, he got pushed by the goaltender, and I think the momentum just pushed him on the D,” Vigneault said. “I don’t really think I can fault him for that. I looked at the replay, but I’ll have to see it again. But it’s just a part of the game.”
Michael Grabner would later give the Rangers the lead on a stylish give-and-go goal via David Desharnais, but it didn’t take long for Crosby to make amends for his earlier penalties. With Murray pulled for the extra attacker, No. 87 took the air out of Madison Square Garden by sneaking the puck between Henrik Lundqvist’s pads.
Yes, the Rangers played like a team possessed after Crosby’s double minor. Yes, they showed a lot of spirit and resiliency from the second period through overtime. Miller posted a three-point night. Buchnevich is continuing to show hints of why his high-level skill could lead to stardom. Desharnais demonstrated his ability to dish and score to go along with his mastery at the faceoff circle. The 31-year-old center finished the night with a goal and an assist.
But this team is still getting the basics of structure, execution and discipline all wrong. At the moment, the Rangers’ glass feels half empty and it’s up to them to fill it up to the brim during the four home games to come. Next up are the rival Islanders on Thursday night. If the Blueshirts give away another game due to their own mistakes, major questions are going to be asked about a team that has already lost four straight.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey