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Penguins must put back-to-back losses behind them

by Mike G. Morreale

NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins haven't fared too well when forced to close out a series in a Game 7 on home ice in the Stanley Cup Playoffs in recent years.

They'll need to do that Tuesday in order to advance to the Eastern Conference Final.

The Penguins appeared to unravel at the most inopportune times, taking undisciplined penalties and getting caught up in a few unnecessary skirmishes, on the way to a 3-1 loss against the New York Rangers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference Second Round series at Madison Square Garden on Sunday night. What once was a 3-1 lead in this best-of 7 series is completely gone after the Penguins dropped their second straight game.

Pittsburgh will host New York in a winner-take-all finale Tuesday at Consol Energy Center (7 p.m. ET; CBC, RDS, NBCSN).

Among the nine penalties called against the Penguins, three were roughing minors. There was also one for too many men, and James Neal received a 10-minute misconduct with 10 seconds remaining in regulation.

"Frustration is a tricky word; if it leads to uncharacteristic things, like uncharacteristic play and penalties, then it's bad," Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen said. "But you saw we had real desperation to be aggressive and go after them.

"Our compete level was really high when we were down 2-0. We had a really good push in the second half of the first period and were battling like heck to get back in the hockey game and couldn't score. We were pushing really hard and [Marc-Andre Fleury] played well the rest of the game. We need a better start so we don't cross that bridge again. We need to just lay it all on the line."

In a subdued dressing room at the end of the game, players pointed to a failure to keep the Rangers off the scoreboard in the opening seven minutes when Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin scored in a span of 2:51 to send most of the 18,006 in attendance into a frenzy and immediately put the home team in the driver's seat.

"I think we were a little frustrated because our team isn't used to falling behind so quickly, but I thought we had more energy [Sunday]," Pittsburgh defenseman Rob Scuderi said. "But they get two bounces that go their way. We can be a little frustrated as a team, but we have to have confidence in what we do as a group. It has gotten us to this point and if we play it the right way, it'll get us to the next round."

The Penguins must now clinch on home ice, where they are 2-6 all-time in Game 7s. Since Dan Bylsma took over as coach in February 2009, the Penguins have gone 1-7 on home ice with an opportunity to close out a series and have been outscored 33-18.

Despite that fact, the players remain confident.

"All Game 7s are big, but we can't change what's gotten us to this point," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who has one goal this postseason. "All we can do is make sure we show up [on Tuesday]. It's a matter of taking advantage of your chances and capitalizing, trying to go to the right areas and finding ways to create. Sometimes it's easier than others, but ultimately you've got to find a way."

The frustration even seemed to get the best of Crosby, who was whistled for cross-checking against Dominic Moore in front of Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist at the end of the second period.

"You start blanking their top guys and start frustrating them, they get frustrated," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "When it's not going well for them, that means we're doing our job. That stuff after the whistle is going to happen. Throughout a series, emotions carry over; that's just part of it."

Penguins forward Craig Adams acknowledged that he couldn't pinpoint one reason his team lost two straight for the first time in the playoffs, but he does know the opening 10 minutes Sunday cost his team Game 6.

"You're not happy whenever you lose a game, especially two big games, so that's frustrating but it's nothing that we can change right now," Adams said. "I don't approach Game 7s differently. It's a must-win game but, at same time, you're focused on doing all the things that you normally focus on to win a game. You need to win four games to move on, so we haven't done that yet."

Further complicating matters is the fact over the past four postseasons, the Penguins have never won a series after losing consecutive games. Not only have the Rangers won back-to-back games, but they've outscored Pittsburgh 8-2.

"I think you have to close the book on Games 5 and 6 pretty quickly," Bylsma said. "Yes, we had a chance in those games to end the series, but there was a different storyline for different games. [On Sunday] we got down early by two goals and we had to reset at that time, fight back. Going into Game 7, we have to have the same mentality. We can't look back to Game 1 or look at Game 5 or Game 6. It's time to move on to Game 7 in Pittsburgh."

It might help if the Penguins opened the scoring Tuesday, something they haven't done in all three losses; the team scoring first in this series has won all six games. One positive for the Penguins has been the penalty kill; they have denied the Rangers on 22 of 24 opportunities in the series.

"Five-on-5 and our penalty kill were pretty good," Crosby said. "We're working hard, but we still have to do a better job of clearing rebounds and getting to the net. There are some good opportunities there. We had a couple of breakaways shorthanded, some pretty good looks. If anything, our power play has to do more or at least generate more chances."

The Penguins' power play generated seven shots on four opportunities Sunday, but was held scoreless and fell to 1-for-19 in the series. Bylsma utilized four forwards and one defenseman with the man advantage in Game 6 and will likely return to that strategy if presented the opportunity in Game 7.

"We went to four forwards and I liked the way that looked," Bylsma said. "James [Neal] had a good chance, but we didn't get it and that was part of the story of this game."

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