Henrik Lundqvist watches a first period goal from Penguins’ Matt Cullen trickle past him and into the net.
Eric Staal played like a man possessed in Sunday night’s 3-2 Rangers overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden. That was the big picture positive to take from an Easter Sunday defeat in the division foes’ final regular-season meeting before a potential first-round playoff series rematch of last spring.
Staal was a consistent threat in his second game at left wing with Kevin Hayes (two assists), reenergized by his move back to center, and Jesper Fast (two assists) on the right. “We’re looking for flow and balance and comfort and giving ourselves the best chance to win every night,” Staal said after recording his fourth and fifth points in his 14th game as a Ranger since a Feb. 28 trade from Carolina. “I think that’s what A.V. (coach Alain Vigneault) is looking to do. It’s been at times an offensive struggle for me, but I’m feeling a little bit better and now we just want wins and points.”
The second point eluded the Rangers (43-24-9, 95 points) on Sidney Crosby’s deflection of a Kris Letang point shot at 4:30 of the 3-on-3 overtime period. So the third-place Penguins (42-25-8, 92 points) kept the playoff chase plenty interesting with the Islanders (89 points) not far behind in the first wild card slot.
Marc Staal, Eric’s younger brother, wouldn’t let the defeat cloud how impressive a Rangers overtime penalty kill had been, led by his defensive breakup and Rick Nash’s strong clears. Vigneault’s team, after all, has earned seven of eight points in their last four games.
“It was definitely a big week for us,” Marc Staal said of wins over Florida, Boston and Montreal prior to Sunday’s loss. “We got a lot of points, and it was two teams battling hard here. We had a great kill. It’s not gonna be 3-on-3 in the playoffs, let’s put it that way.”
The loss still stung, though. The Rangers finished only 1-2-1 against the Penguins this season, losing their final three meetings — 4-1 on March 3 in Pittsburgh, 5-3 on March 13 at the Garden and 3-2 in OT Sunday night following a 3-0 win in the Steel City on Feb. 10.
Center Evgeni Malkin, one of the best players in the world, played in only one of the four matches on March 3.
Eric Staal delivers two goals for the Rangers on Sunday but it’s not enough to top the Penguins.
Mike Sullivan’s team played without the injured Malkin, Olli Maatta, Brian Doumolin on Sunday, but Letang was magnificent in a game-high 31:45 of ice time. Ex-Ranger Carl Hagelin (assist), who scored the goal to eliminate the Penguins last spring in Game 5 of last year’s first-round series at the Garden, killed the Rangers on a deadly speed line with Phil Kessel (goal).
“When Kessel skates like that, he’s one of the better players in the league,” Henrik Lundqvist (29 saves) said.
Knicks president Phil Jackson was in attendance, finally watching a playoff team at the Garden. He saw Penguins goalie Marc Andre-Fleury make 25 stops as some top Rangers struggled, such as forwards J.T. Miller, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello, while defensemen Dan Girardi and Marc Staal were solid.
Trading Hagelin to Anaheim for cap reasons last summer cost the Rangers this season in the speed and penalty killing departments, but Sunday night’s consequences were more direct: Hagelin’s speed forced a Miller turnover prior to Matt Cullen’s game-tying goal at 15:49 of the first period. Then Hagelin hassled Lundqvist into a bad turnover for Kessel’s goal at 8:36 of the second period and a 2-2 tie.
Eric Staal had opened the scoring 4:19 into the first period with his first goal in 10 games and second as a Ranger on a high-skill, one-handed finish of a nasty give-and-go feed by Hayes. Staal’s short-side rip at 2:07 of the second period had given the hosts a 2-1 lead after Hayes and Fast had worked hard to keep the puck alive.
“I feel good about the way we played. It was a good game,” said Lundqvist, whose Rangers have just six games remaining. “There’s a big possibility this is the team we’re gonna face very soon. It’s a pretty tight matchup.”