Commentary

Experience? Home ice? Rangers still come up empty-handed vs. Pens

Updated: April 30, 2008, 12:56 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

NEW YORK -- On a night that featured a litany of missed opportunities, bad decisions and foiled plans for the New York Rangers, the one lasting image that defines a season now in tatters is of Ryan Hollweg ramming a defenseless Petr Sykora into the boards 15:56 into the second period.

The penalty, taken by a player inserted into the lineup by coach Tom Renney to add some menace to a docile Rangers lineup desperate for a win, ironically breathed life into a Penguins team that for the first time this spring looked befuddled and out of sync.

The Rangers dominated the game physically, outshot and outchanced the Penguins by a large margin and erased a 3-1 Pittsburgh lead less than three minutes earlier when Hollweg checked the life out of New York's playoffs hopes.

With three seconds left in Hollweg's penalty, Evgeni Malkin cradled the puck near the top of the faceoff circle, seemed to ponder the moment for a beat, and then ripped a bullet past Henrik Lundqvist to give the Penguins a 4-3 lead. For the Penguins, it was only the 13th shot of the night.

More from Game 3

• Veteran Gary Roberts has gone from injured and out of the lineup to just plain out of the lineup. The 42-year-old forward was held out of Game 2; with the Penguins enjoying a perfect postseason even with Roberts nursing a groin injury, coach Michel Therrien kept the same lineup Tuesday and said Roberts will remain on the sideline.

The team needs Roberts, "but we need him at the right time," Therrien said before the Pens' 5-3 victory. "Who are we going to take out [of the lineup]? We've got no reason to take anybody out. Eventually he'll get back in the lineup. We know that. But it needs to be done at the right time."

After a lengthy skate Tuesday morning, Roberts said he understood and would be ready when called upon. Adam Hall has taken Roberts' place and scored an empty-net goal in Game 2.

• The Petr Prucha experiment lasted just one game as Rangers coach Tom Renney opted for more snarl in his Game 3 lineup by inserting Ryan Hollweg. That didn't work out too well, either; Hollweg took a crucial boarding penalty in the second period that led to the Penguins' winning goal.

• A couple of Penguins prospects saw their exposure increase over the weekend. Unfortunately for Nathan Smith, captain of the Penguins' AHL team in Wilkes-Barre, and Ryan Stone, the exposure came after a streaking incident in Scranton, Pa. Smith told police he was running naked early Sunday morning on a bet.

Smith, 26, was charged with a variety of offenses, including indecent exposure, open lewdness and disorderly conduct and public drunkenness, according to a report from The Canadian Press. Stone was charged with public drunkenness.

"I would like to apologize to the people of Northeast Pennsylvania, my teammates, and to the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and Pittsburgh Penguins organizations," Smith said in a statement. "I made an embarrassing and regrettable decision this weekend and understand I will face disciplinary action. My conduct was unacceptable and totally out of character -- it will not happen again."

The Baby Penguins await their second-round opponent in the AHL playoffs after eliminating Hershey last week. Both players are expected to be disciplined by the team.

• And from the "only in New York" category: One of the Pittsburgh television camera crews was en route to Madison Square Garden for the morning skate Tuesday when their cab was nearly involved in an accident. The driver of the other car, a BMW, got out of the car, opened the cab driver's door and began to punch the cab driver in the head. Then, when the cab driver tried to get the license plate number from the BMW, the pugilist refused to move from in front of the license plate. No word on whether the meter remained running for the entire episode.

-- Scott Burnside

The Pens would add to it just 2:30 into the third and go on to win 5-3, scoring five times on just 17 shots, and take a 3-0 series lead into Thursday's Game 4 here in New York.

For the record, the Rangers did not take another penalty in the game after the Hollweg brain cramp. It didn't matter though.

"I don't think anybody feels worse in this building than Ryan Hollweg," Renney said. "His teammates love him. He comes to war for each and every one of those guys. So, it's one of those things. It's a very, very tough penalty to take. We know that. We came close to killing it, but unsuccessfully at the end of the day. It probably was the turning point in the game as far as I could tell."

The Penguins have won seven straight games this postseason. Cue the eerie music, but according to our friends at Elias Sports Bureau, the last team that began the playoffs with seven straight wins was the 1994 New York Rangers. That Rangers team, of course, went on to capture the Stanley Cup.

As the playoffs began, there was a belief that maybe this Rangers squad could make a similar run. It was built for a long run with talent down the middle, great goaltending and a wealth of experience (there are eight Stanley Cup rings among the roster). Many picked the Rangers to defeat the Penguins in large part because of that experience.

Even though the Rangers dropped the first two games of this series in Pittsburgh, the Penguins failed to win at Madison Square Garden in four tries this season. And with the rabid MSG fans ready to remind the Pens of this at every turn, this seemed the perfect place for that experience to assert itself.

It didn't. Not when it mattered.

The Hollweg penalty was symbolic; a lightning rod for the team's discontent. But there was so much that didn't materialize in what was essentially a win-or-forget-it game, it's difficult to know where to start.

You could start with a power play that features the owners of those eight Stanley Cup rings: Jaromir Jagr, Scott Gomez, Brendan Shanahan and Chris Drury. It is a group that has scored once in 14 power-play attempts in this series. Worse, the Rangers' power play had a chance to seize control of Tuesday's game, maybe wrest control of the series back from the Penguins.

With the Pens leading 3-1 early in the second period, they took three straight, overlapping minor penalties. The infractions gave the Rangers a 42-second two-man advantage and then a 33-second 5-on-3.

There were flurries of activities, and terrific saves by Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 36 of 39 on the night. There was a period when the Penguins only had three skaters because Rob Scuderi was limping around having blocked a shot with his foot. The puck did find its way behind Fleury, but defenseman Ryan Whitney was there to whip it to safety. The Rangers' power play, as Shakespeare once wrote, was all "sound and fury, signifying nothing."

You can ask, as everyone has since this series started, how do you fix the power play? But in some ways, the power play is like art -- you don't know what it is, but you know it when you see it. You know the Penguins have a power play. They know exactly what to do and how to do it. They scored two more power-play goals Tuesday, both by Malkin, who had two goals and an assist on the night. The Pens have now scored at least one power-play goal in seven straight playoff games. The Rangers' failure to match that production has been a crucial factor.

"I thought it had chances tonight. We took shots, we had traffic," Renney said. "We just have to stick with it and become absolutely, absolutely desperate to score, to do whatever it takes and, having said that, there's an intelligence that has to go along with that, as well."

The implication was the Rangers lacked that Tuesday, but Renney said that wasn't really what he meant. Look around the Rangers' dressing room and players seemed to be subliminally shaking their heads, not in anger but amazement. Three games into the second round, and look at us?

"These are the tough ones because you can look at a lot of things. But it is what it is," said Rangers center Scott Gomez, who set up goals 1:04 apart in the second period to tie the game at 3 before Hollweg's penalty.

Here's the difficult part to swallow for the Rangers: Their best players have been pretty good. Jagr was the best player on the ice in Game 3, leading all players with 10 shots on goal. The Pens had 17 in total. He had a goal and an assist and drew at least one penalty. And in the end, he too was left shaking his head.

"Maybe the pressure is a little bit getting on us," Jagr said. "It's too late to talk about it right now. Focus on the next game."

A Canadian columnist began to ask Jagr about how everyone expected this to be a long, close series. Jagr cut him off.

"It is over? I don't think it's over. Think it's over? Talk to me after series over," he said, walking away to the showers.

The conversations are almost always the same in dressing rooms where teams are down 3-0. Given the historic implications -- teams come back from such a deficit once every 33 years -- it's all white noise. Still, it is noise players and coaches on those teams are required to make, the alternative to simply stand mute until the inevitable arrives.

"What we cannot do is (a) panic, (b) we can't defeat ourselves and figure that this is over and (c) we can't allow Pittsburgh to come into our rink and think that they've got this thing wrapped up before it is," Renney said. "I know that our team believes that they can come back in this series right now … and that's exactly where you want their mind-set to be."

In the end, that mind-set might be the only thing the Rangers have left.

Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.

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