By Sean Hartnett
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The Rangers will have an excellent chance brushing aside the top-heavy Penguins if they can continue frustrating star duo Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.
Led by the stalwart efforts of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, the Rangers put on a near-perfect defensive clinic in their 2-1 Game 3 victory after Crosby roared back with a signature, two-goal Game 2 performance.
Both the Rangers and Penguins are playing in the mold of their captain. McDonagh has exuded coolness and confidence as the Rangers have gained a 2-1 series advantage. A distracted Crosby has looked far too desperate, trying every bit of gamesmanship. The Rangers aren’t biting.
As demanded by head coach Alain Vigneault, the Rangers play whistle-to-whistle. They’re too smart to fall for Crosby’s tactics. They aren’t taking the bait when Crosby does subtle, sneaky things with his stick and body when the refs have their back turned or are looking elsewhere.
Crosby got away with non-penalized elbows and high sticks to the head of McDonagh. Captain Mac will get angry, but he doesn’t lose his cool. When McDonagh is angry, he plays with an increased focus. The levelheaded 25-year-old Rangers captain won countless head-to-head battles with No. 87. He plays within his game and has only responded to Crosby’s antics by transforming into “McMonster.”
McDonagh was matched up against Crosby for 10:44 of the 19:49 Crosby was on the ice. The Penguins’ captain finished Game 3 with an assist and two shots on goal – but he was held in check by the Rangers’ top defensive pairing of McDonagh and Girardi for much of the night. Having also contributed two assists, Girardi was in lockdown mode during the 14:20 he was matched against Crosby.
When things aren’t working for Crosby, he becomes easily distracted. He resorts to dirtiness, cheap tactics and never-ending yapping at officials. All game, he campaigns for calls. There’s a sense of entitlement. He expects the refs to bow to his star power.
There was a moment when Rick Nash raised his stick and made contact with Crosby’s shoulder. Crosby dramatically snapped his head back, then bent down while holding his face in his glove in an attempt to earn a power play. The refs weren’t having any of it.
At this point, Crosby looks closer to winning an Oscar than he does lifting the Stanley Cup. He’s been forced to play as more of a finisher than a creator this series because McDonagh, Girardi, Marc Staal and Co. simply aren’t allowing him the space to display his all-world vision and creativity. The effective fourth line of Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Jesper Fast maintained possession deep in the Pens’ end and forced Crosby to defend.
In a show of pent-up frustration, Crosby lashed out at Moore following the final horn after Moore shoved an unguarded Crosby off the post in the final seconds. Just like last year’s playoffs, the Rangers have successfully gotten under Crosby’s skin. No. 87’s frustration level is a barometer for how well the Rangers are playing. The more Crosby looses his cool, it’s a sign things are going very well for the Blueshirts.
Meanwhile, Malkin has gone completely missing. No. 71 finished the regular season in ice-cold fashion, going pointless in his final five regular-season appearances. Including the first three games of this series, Malkin has not registered a point in eight consecutive games.
Malkin did not register a shot on goal in 20:53 TOI in Game 3. He has collected just four SOG through three series games.
If Crosby and Malkin don’t find their A game, the Penguins stand very little chance of winning this series. The Penguins simply do not have a supporting cast capable of taking on the goal-scoring burden. David Perron has gone 15 games without a goal and has recorded just two assists in the past 15 games. Daniel Winnik was acquired by the Pens on Feb. 25. He hasn’t scored since Mar. 28.
Pens head coach Mike Johnston paired Winnik, Malkin and Perron together on the second line in Game 3. The ice-cold trio struggled. Malkin and Winnik did not register a SOG. Perron at least showed some sign of life by collecting three SOG. Perron and Malkin have skated together on the second line since Apr. 10. They are yet to combine for a goal. Looking for a spark, Johnston replaced Winnik with Blake Comeau during the third period.
The Penguins are a poorly constructed, injury-battered team. They’re headed for an embarrassingly quick playoff exit and another summer filled with questions if Crosby and Malkin don’t get their act together.
Follow Sean on Twitter @HartnettHockey.