NEW YORK — After the New York Rangers were shut out for the second consecutive game, the quotes from the locker room didn’t exactly sync with the outcome.
When asked if he thought the Rangers were the better team after losing 2-0 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Monday night in Game 3 of their conference semifinal series, Mats Zuccarello didn’t hesitate: “Yes, I did.”
Once you’ve cleaned your keyboard after that spit take, take a gander at what coach Alain Vigneault thought of his team’s performance that left them trailing the best-of-seven series 2-1.
“I’m happy about our whole team tonight,” Vigneault said. “We played a real strong game.”
There’s a lot of value in possession metrics, as they can really reveal which team controlled the play in a particular game. In Game 3, the Rangers had far more shot attempts than the Penguins both overall (69-38) and at five-on-five (47-32), but sometimes those numbers do not accurately reflect what occurred on the ice.
When the game was either tied or 1-0, the Penguins actually held the edge in shot attempts (24-23) and made the most of their two high-quality chances, as Sidney Crosby and Jussi Jokinen scored on breakaways with the Rangers asleep at the wheel.
For all the shots the Rangers sent toward Marc-Andre Fleury, who has made 57 consecutive saves the past two games, none were of that caliber. Of the few attempts that could be deemed dangerous scoring chances, New York missed the net more tragically than an acrobat with vertigo.
Fleury made a few difficult stops, including a glove save on Zuccarello in the first period, but he had to deal with about as much traffic as a city that’s been wiped out by a zombie apocalypse. Many of the Rangers' long-distance shots involved an unfettered Fleury who either froze the puck without a rebound or deflected shots into benign areas.
The Rangers hit two posts, but a shot that hits a post is nothing more than a glorified shot that isn’t on goal.
Defenseman Ryan McDonagh, who missed the far post late in the game on a shot from about four feet from the net, had one of the few tempered, sobering opinions about the Rangers’ Game 3 performance.
“We set ourselves up for a lot of looks,” he said, “but it doesn’t matter if you’re getting looks or not, (it’s) whether you finish. To go two games without scoring a goal, it’s going to be tough to win those games. We did a lot of good things here. We just have to regroup. We had a lot of hockey in the last few days and we’re ready to regroup and come back with a big charge in Game 4.”
This was the Rangers’ fifth playoff game in seven days. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first team in 25 years to play such a postseason schedule.
“We were forced to play a stupid schedule, five games in seven nights,” Vigneault said, “and I’m real proud of how our guys handled it. They handled it real well.”
Vigneault is correct that his team played with the energy that was sorely lacking in Game 2, and the quirky schedule that’s the result of Madison Square Garden hosting a WNBA game and Billy Joel concert this week was not the Rangers’ downfall in Game 3. The addition of fresh legs in the form of J.T. Miller, Jesper Fast and Raphael Diaz for Daniel Carcillo, Derek Dorsett and John Moore took away the fatigue excuse.
It did nothing to correct the course of the power play, however, which failed to convert on five opportunities and is now 0-of-34 since Game 2 of the first round. It generated extended offensive-zone time on its fourth chance and had some looks in the final two minutes with Henrik Lundqvist on the bench with an extra attacker, but it still couldn’t get a puck past Fleury.
Making matters worse, a miscommunication between Zuccarello and Richards in the dying seconds of a power play was what led to Jokinen springing from the penalty box and scoring his breakaway goal that made it 2-0.
“It’s disappointing but you know what you’re going through,” Martin St. Louis said. “You know you’re doing some things. You know you’re grabbing the momentum. You just try to keep pushing. I think we’ve played a lot of hockey lately...I’m not worried. We have plenty of guys who can put the puck in the net and we’re going to keep working for it.”
One of those guys is Rick Nash. While Crosby ended his 13-game playoff goal drought Monday, Nash hasn’t scored in 10 games during these playoffs. His postseason drought is 13 games, and in 26 career playoff games, he has two goals.
Just like with Crosby, Nash has been a dominant possession player in the playoffs with a 58.1 Corsi percentage in 10 games. But while Crosby has been fully engaged and driving the net, Nash has settled for long shots far too often, and when he has found himself with the puck around the net, he hasn’t been able to finish.
If Rick Nash were Russian his career would be so over... Multiple times by now.— Stephen Burtch (@SteveBurtch) May 6, 2014
Nash had four shots and eight attempts in Game 3. As wonderful as his possession metrics may be, he needs to follow in the footsteps of Crosby this season and Jonathan Toews a year ago—when Toews couldn’t buy a goal while dominating possession before scoring during the Stanley Cup Final—and put a puck in the net for the Rangers to have a chance at winning this series.
Who will win Game 4 between the Rangers and Penguins?
There were encouraging signs for the Rangers in this Game 3 loss, but players were far too happy in a game that saw them allow two breakaways and fail to make life hard on Fleury for a second straight game. Yes, they had a lot of shots (35), allowed very few shots (15) and had a slew of power-play shots (10).
Now 100 minutes without a NYR goal. More concerning only 48 NYR shots over those 5 periods. Not enough quality scoring chances.— John Shannon (@JSportsnet) May 6, 2014
Still, the chances need to be better. The lapses can't be as catastrophic. It's one thing to get caught out of position when Craig Adams has a chance in the slot; it's a whole other problem when Crosby and Jokinen are given free paths to the net. That defeats the value of outshooting a team by almost any margin.
“We did a lot of good things; everything but put it in the net,” Richards said. “It’s one of those nights where we deserved a better fate, but we move on.”
If the Rangers fail to put it in the net in Game 4, they’ll be all but guaranteed of moving on to the golf course while the Penguins will be moving on to the conference finals for a second straight year.