PITTSBURGH -- The Pittsburgh Penguins had a sluggish start again on Monday, and the New York Rangers took advantage for a 2-1 win in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference First Round at Consol Energy Center.
Unlike in Game 1 of their best-of-7 series, the Penguins did not respond well from a porous first period to pull within one goal in the second and earn a puncher's chance to steal a win with ample time to spare. Unlike in Game 2, they did not respond from another lackluster first to control the majority of the final 40 minutes to earn an eye-opening win.
In Game 3, Pittsburgh started slow again. By the time it got going, it was too late.
"Tonight, I think, what we talked about before, sometimes at home, you get the energy and you try to do things and you try to force," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "I thought we forced a lot of plays in the first period. And really, we can't do that. We have to make sure we have better shot selection, get more pucks to the net. That's what's going to create the loose puck intensity."
The Penguins weren't drastically outplayed in the first period, because neither team played particularly well. The Rangers scored the period's lone goal when Keith Yandle sent Carl Hagelin on a breakaway, and Pittsburgh was caught during a botched line change.
Hagelin blazed by Evgeni Malkin and Ian Cole, with Rob Scuderi looking toward the Penguins bench and eventually drifting over to leave the ice. Hagelin sent a slap shot past Marc-Andre Fleury 8:43 into the first.
After 15:10 passed, defenseman Ben Lovejoy recorded Pittsburgh's first shot, a slap shot from mid-ice that Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist easily snagged. The crowd provided a sarcastic round of applause.
Poor starts have plagued the Penguins, but they managed to improve through the final two periods of the series' first two games and play competitively. That wasn't the case until well into the third period Monday, and Pittsburgh now trails 2-1 entering Game 4 on Wednesday (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN360, TVA2, MSG, ROOT).
"I can't say exactly why it was a slow start," Cole said. "I think just trying to get to our game that we played in the third period, in the later part of the game, that level of desperation, that kind of battle will certainly help us in the starts for sure."
The play from each team slightly improved in the second period. New York earned a 12-8 shot advantage while extending its lead to two goals on a Chris Kreider wrist shot. The Penguins earned probably their best scoring chance, outside of a Sidney Crosby backhand attempt off the post in the first, through two periods when Maxim Lapierre sent a wrist shot off of Lundqvist's right pad while a man down.
But there was never much threat of Pittsburgh cutting into New York's lead.
"All games to me have been pretty similar," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Not a lot of room on the ice. You have to earn every inch. A lot of tight checking from both teams. … Today, we were able to get off to a pretty good start and have two good periods, I thought, offensively and defensively."
The success the Penguins had darting through the neutral zone while stymying the Rangers attack through the first two games was nonexistent. Dan Boyle, Kreider and Ryan McDonagh each said Sunday that New York would have to cut off Pittsburgh's circulation through the neutral zone and move the puck more efficiently itself.
The Rangers improved in each of those areas.
"We did a good job staying in our structure and we talked about continuing to move our feet, make good decisions with the puck, put it in areas where we can be first on it or at least put pressure on their forwards or their D," McDonagh said. "Keep the puck away from their goalie because he can play it well. A lot of good things leading up to the fact that we were able to control the puck a little more."
Pittsburgh adjusted in the third. Blake Comeau was moved from the bottom six to left wing alongside Malkin and David Perron. The offense became more potent and the Penguins' top line of Crosby centering Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz came through again.
Hornqvist scored his fourth career playoff goal to cut the Rangers' lead to 2-1 with 6:48 remaining.
After two poor periods, the Penguins ignited. They dominated the later stages of the third, earning a 13-7 shot advantage, but gave themselves little time to fully take advantage of their late surge.
The Rangers adapted to the performance they deemed lackluster following their 4-3 loss in Game 2 on Saturday, executed their game plan through two periods. Pittsburgh didn't have an answer for New York's adjustments until the third period's waning minutes and is now forced to evaluate its play and find a way to reclaim the momentum it thought it had after Game 2.
"I think the whole third period, we played the way we have to, to win in this series," Hornqvist said. "Our first two periods weren't good enough, but everybody can see when we play at the top of our game like we did in the third, we have [a good] team and just have to get that edge right away in the next game. … Obviously, we have to be better. Our third period was great and our first two were not very good.
"I don't know if they did something to us or if we weren't ready to go. But we need to be better and I know we will be."