PITTSBURGH — The road-warrior Rangers hope to continue their proficiency away from home in Wednesday night’s Game 4 against the Penguins at CONSOL Energy Center and take a 3-1 series lead back to New York, but there is a sense that this Eastern Conference quarterfinal is about to crescendo after a physical Game 3.
The Rangers held off the Pens Monday night after the home team threw everything but the kitchen sink at Henrik Lundqvist, firing off 13 third-period shots and making things uncomfortable for the goaltender with some contact, which Lundqvist took exception to. The game got chippy and included a post-horn fracas, and while the Rangers have more or less maintained discipline, they don’t want the opposition getting too up close and personal with their goaltender.
“It’s hard to control what the opponents are gonna do,” Martin St. Louis said Tuesday after skating with the extras. “We gotta be big boys and be smart about it. There’s a time and a place to get your licks in. You’ve got to stay composed.”
The Penguins don’t believe they’ve done anything outside of the natural gamesmanship that is a part of a Stanley Cup Playoff series and feel the increase in physicality has gone both ways.
“I didn’t necessarily see too many overly dirty plays,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ian Cole said. “But yeah, I think that for everything that we do, they do too. I don’t think this is a one-sided series as far as viciousness or dirty play.”
For the Penguins, perception isn’t reality. They don’t feel they’ve crossed a line with encroachment on Lundqvist, and they have no plans on changing their approach.
“In the playoffs, games are won at the front of the net, so we’ll keep on doing what we’re doing,” Brandon Sutter said.
The Rangers didn’t practice Tuesday, with St. Louis the only non-injured regular on the ice. Kevin Klein (broken arm) skated again but declined to speak with reporters, saying through a team PR representative he had nothing new to report.
Meanwhile, the Penguins locker room seemed rather upbeat after their practice, continuing to boast belief that they can hang with the Presidents’ Trophy winners as they did in Game 2 and the third period in Game 3.
There are areas Pittsburgh must clean up, however, for it to have a chance to level the series. It has allowed two goals off of line changes in the series, one of which was Carl Hagelin’s first-period goal in Monday’s Game 3. That gave the Rangers their third 1-0 lead of the series, and the Penguins lamented their slow and sloppy shift transitions.
“Two goals off line changes is way too many, two too many quite frankly,” Cole said.
Also problematic is the relatively small impact Penguins star Evgeni Malkin has had on the series. Pittsburgh coach Mike Johnston expressed optimism that he’s close to breaking through while Malkin owned up to his inconsistency. “I’m not really happy with my game right now,” he said.
Alain Vigneault had no interest in addressing Malkin’s effectiveness when asked about it at the team’s hotel on Tuesday. “Listen, Malkin doesn’t play for my team,” he said. “I’ve got 20 guys. I’ve been watching him on tape very closely, but he’s not my player.”
He’d rather focus on what he can control to try to gain a two-game series lead with a chance to end a series early, something the Rangers couldn’t do during their run to the Cup Final last season. The Penguins will be desperate and physical again Wednesday to keep themselves in a series featuring a shift in dynamic from last season’s second-round series, when the favored Penguins blew a 3-1 series lead.
“I think there’s history with the two teams,” St. Louis said. “I don’t think (the physicality is) anything new. We knew it’d be like that from the get-go and it’s expected. We were trying to keep our discipline and play the game, play hockey.”
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