Despite losing 2-0 on Monday to fall behind 2-1 in the best-of-7 series, New York outshot the Penguins 35-15, enjoyed long stretches of puck possession and swarmed around Pittsburgh goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury. Even the Rangers' dormant power play, which went 0-for-5 and has now failed to score on 34 straight attempts, showed signs of life.
In the end, two opportunistic Penguins goals and Fleury's standout play proved to be the difference. But the strides the Rangers made in this game weren't lost on coaches and players.
"I'm happy about our whole team tonight. We played a real strong game," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "We're down by a game, but if we play the same way we did tonight, I'm real confident that we'll have a better outcome [in Game 4] on Wednesday."
A major liability so far in this series, the Rangers' power play created chances in Game 3. After collecting 10 shots on eight attempts in the first two games, New York had 10 shots on five attempts Monday.
The Rangers also moved the puck with greater conviction and enjoyed long stretches inside the Pittsburgh zone. Some of those improvements came from the addition of defenseman Raphael Diaz to the lineup. One of three personnel changes Vigneault made for Game 3, Diaz had six shots (most on either team), including four with the man advantage.
"We had the puck a lot more in their zone with more possession. We've got to continue to put more pucks toward the net," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said of the power play. "We should feel good. We had a lot of good looks. It's just a matter of really crashing the net and making it harder on [Fleury] as much as you can."
To make matters worse, though, each of Pittsburgh's goals came shortly after the Penguins successfully killed off a penalty. Jussi Jokinen gave Pittsburgh a 2-0 lead moments after serving two minutes for holding Derick Brassard's stick. Those two goals, including Sidney Crosby's game-winner 19 seconds after James Neal finished serving a double-minor for high-sticking, was all the scoring Pittsburgh needed.
"They made a good play, scoring with Sid. The other [goal] was just bad luck," said forward Brad Richards, who saw a different Rangers team from the one that split the first two games in Pittsburgh. "There's no correlation tonight. The other two games in Pitt, they took it to us. That's a whole different situation."
The Rangers seemed to be on the puck much of the night, outshooting the Penguins 9-1 in the third period. Between the 12-minute mark of the second and the end of the game, they outshot Pittsburgh 18-2. But, they were outscored 1-0 in that span.
The chances were there and the MSG crowd thought the Rangers had tied the game 8:02 into the second. But a video review showed Mats Zuccarello's shot hit the crossbar, yet another example of a strong effort going unrewarded.
"It's been a struggle, but if you let it go to our heads it's not going to be any easier," Zuccarello said. "We just have to keep shooting and hopefully we'll get a lucky bounce and then get some confidence."
Asked point-blank if he thought the Rangers were the better team in Game 3, Zuccarello didn't think long before giving his answer.
"Yes, I did."