<
>

Penguins beat Rangers at own hard-nosed game

PITTSBURGH -- We knew the talent-rich Pittsburgh Penguins could win the Rembrandt games. But the question coming into this second round against a hard-working, experience-laden New York Rangers team was whether they could win the paint-by-numbers games.

On Sunday afternoon, in a game that was custom-built for the Rangers with a paucity of scoring chances and tighter checking, it was the Penguins who came away with a 2-0 victory and a 2-0 series lead.

Games 3 and 4 are in New York Tuesday and Thursday, and unless the Rangers can find a game the Penguins can't play, that could be it.

"Our game is not where it needs to be to win this series," Rangers coach Tom Renney said after his team could not find a way to solve Penguins netminder
Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped all 26 shots he faced for his second shutout of the postseason.

Is it troubling to play your style and still find yourself on the wrong side of a 2-0 series lead?

"Well, it is in a short series, when we're playing a maximum seven times, so you want to make sure you right your ship quickly under these circumstances," Renney said. "It's a short-term competition. You know, we were better in terms of chances against. But I think to a man they can still suggest to you they can play better, and obviously we know we need to."

One of Pittsburgh coach Michel Therrien's favorite themes this postseason, apart from the Sidney Crosby diving insinuations, has been his team's understated defensive prowess.

During the regular season, the Penguins boasted the third-best goals-against average in the Eastern Conference, but that strength is always overshadowed by the team's explosive offense. This playoff season, the Penguins rank first among all teams in defensive stinginess, allowing just nine goals in six games -- all victories.

The penalty kill, once considered a problem area for the Pens, has gone from improved to stellar. They entered the day having allowed the fewest power-play goals (two) among playoff teams. They've also logged the least amount of time on the PK, and on Sunday successfully killed all six Rangers power plays.

The crucial penalty kill came with less than three minutes to play in regulation and the Penguins holding a 1-0 lead after defenseman Hal Gill was whistled for cross-checking Sean Avery near the Penguins' net at 17:38.

The moment was reminiscent of Game 1, when the Rangers' Martin Straka took a late penalty and the Penguins scored on the power play to win 5-4.

But with Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist on the bench in favor of another attacker, the Rangers never really threatened.

How does it feel to watch from the box with so much on the line?

"It's lonely. It's lonely," Gill acknowledged, a fresh cut across the bridge of his nose suggesting how close the quarters were on this day.

"I'm really happy that they held the fort there and got that kill for me, because it's not a good feeling."

Do you look at the clock? Watch the play?

"A little bit of everything I guess. Watching my hands and feeling shame and also just hoping to God that these guys get it done," Gill said.

The big defenseman, who was acquired at the trade deadline, came back onto the ice just as Adam Hall banked a long shot into the open Rangers net to close out the scoring.

Gill also engaged Avery after the Rangers agitator allegedly whacked Fleury on the back of the legs.

"I just got a couple of whacks behind my legs. And then my defense came in and took care of him pretty good," Fleury said.

On a day when the big guns -- Crosby, Marian Hossa, Evgeni Malkin and Petr Sykora -- combined for one assist, the Penguins' third- and fourth-liners were the team's most important players. Specifically the trio of Jarkko Ruutu, Tyler Kennedy and Jordan Staal produced offensive chances from hard work in the offensive zone. They drew penalties and, generally speaking, played the style of hockey the Rangers had hoped would carry them to the Eastern Conference finals.

"I don't think it's just been the case tonight," Crosby said. "They've been playing well for a long time. Obviously Jordan scored a big goal for us, but that line generates a lot of momentum for us. They play against that top line for a lot of minutes. They've done a great job."

Staal, who broke a scoreless tie with a power-play goal at 13:55 of the second period, added: "We take pride in our defensive side of the game as well. We can play on both sides of the puck. We know what it takes to win. If it's a tight game, we'll play a tight game, and if it's an open-it-up game, we can open it up as well."

One might imagine that this type of game is more difficult to play, that with time and space at a premium, the effort to accomplish things must increase exponentially. Or not.

"I think they're all hard in the playoffs," Kennedy said. "Every single shift's hard and you've got to bear down every shift. You can't really tell the difference between this game and Friday night's game."

If the Rangers are surprised to suddenly find themselves down 2-0 in a series many observers felt would go to New York, it wasn't evident in the aftermath of Sunday's game.

"Regroup, go over it. They just kept home ice, so we have to keep ours," offered Rangers center Scott Gomez, who played 20:02 and had just two shots on net.
"It's a well-coached team. They've got a lot of guys over there -- they're young, but they get it. What can you say?

"Give them credit -- they played a great game."

Still, the Rangers are probably shaking their heads over the fact that it wasn't so much the Pens played a great game, but they played a great Rangers-style game.

Game notes
The Rangers appeared to have tied the game at 1-1 with 4:14 left in the third period. But referee Dan O'Halloran ruled the whistle was blown before Straka had jammed the puck underneath Fleury and into the net.

"I thought it was an accurate call. I don't know if it was a quick whistle or what. But if his intention was to blow the whistle and it hasn't crossed the goal line, that seems like that's fair," Renney said.

Penguins forward Gary Roberts missed his fourth straight game with a groin injury. His replacement in the lineup, Hall, scored the empty-net insurance marker with 16.7 seconds left in the game.

Renney moved Petr Prucha into the lineup and sent bruiser Colton Orr to the press box. Prucha played just 5:50 and had no shots on goal.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.