PITTSBURGH -- The Rangers had two comebacks in them on this afternoon. Time ran out with the third one in full swing.
The Blueshirts have opened the spigot on their attack in recent games, but in a Sunday matinee in the Steel City the Rangers dropped a wild one to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-5. They erased deficits of 1-0 and 3-1 in each of the first two periods and, after Pittsburgh had blitzed its way to a three-goal lead in the opening 9:55 of the third, nearly took care of that one too before the final horn sounded to cut short the rally.
On Hockey Day in America, the Rangers got goals from a Swede, a Canadian, an American, and a pair from a Norwegian - Mats Zuccarello scored the visitors' first two goals of the afternoon to keep his points streak rolling, while Ryan Strome scored the second-period equalizer and Kevin Hayes and Mika Zibanejad made the Penguins sweat out the finish.
But amid a stretch in which the Rangers' power play has been a weapon - it had been 10-for-30 over the last 12 games coming in - and after it had already provided the Rangers' opening goal in this game, it couldn't grab ahold of a golden opportunity to start the third period, with Sidney Crosby serving a double minor for high-sticking Neal Pionk in the eye.
Video: NYR@PIT: Zuccarello nets PPG off defender's stick
Pionk was held in the dressing room for the third period for what David Quinn said were precautionary reasons; meanwhile, the penalty kill awoke the home fans and tilted all the energy toward the Pens, who quickly ran off three goals in a span of 5:19.
"That was exactly what happened: We got demoralized, and they got a new set of energy and a new lift. Whole complexion of the game changed," Quinn said. "It was really unfortunate, because battling back from down 3-1, and putting ourselves in the position where we did, a lot of good signs. But to be that flat on your power play and to not generate much, certainly gave the crowd and them a lot of life."
Pittsburgh's first four goals were scored by defensemen, and the last two by Evgeni Malkin, and the Pens needed every one. Kris Letang picked up a pair of his own, with Marcus Pettersson and Brian Dumoulin adding second-period goals.
The Rangers were short one defenseman of their own: Brady Skjei was held out with a lower-body injury suffered on Friday in Buffalo - Quinn said he should be ready for Tuesday's road-trip finale in Carolina - which made room for Freddy Claesson to return after a month's absence with a shoulder injury. Filip Chytil also returned after a one-game absence, taking the place of a flu-ridden Jesper Fast.
Video: NYR@PIT: Georgiev stands strong to shut down Rust
And with each team starting its backup for the matinee, the goaltenders saw plenty of work and, even in a 6-5 game, had their share of highlights, too. Alexandar Georgiev, getting back-to-back starts and his fourth in six games, added 36 saves to his ledger in his second career game against the Penguins, but saw his three-game winning streak come to an end. Pittsburgh's Casey DeSmith, who had come in for mop-up duty in the Penguins' loss to Calgary less than 24 hours before, made 39 saves at the other end, 16 of them on the Chris Kreider-Zibanejad-Zuccarello line alone.
"We had some good chances, we were zipping the puck around, and their goalie made some good saves," said Zuccarello, who has points in four straight and in 13 of his last 14 games, with seven goals and 15 assists during that span. "Except for those five, six minutes in the third, I think we played a good game. Obviously it's a good team over there, with good forwards, they're going to get some good chances. But I think we created a bunch of chances too.
"It could have gone either way, but it's hard when they score three right away, boom boom boom. But we don't give up."
There wasn't a ton of help to be had from the referees, who called Kevin Shattenkirk for hooking after he lifted Jake Guentzel's stick from behind on a first-period breakaway, then nabbed Mika Zibanejad for a phantom holding penalty at the midpoint of the second. The Rangers had 14 seconds left of that minor to kill when Pettersson stepped into Nick Bjugstad's circle-to-circle feed to stake the Penguins to the 3-1 lead.
Quinn said Francois St. Laurent skated to the bench before the third period began and told him, "'Listen, I had a bad first two periods … I'll be better in the third.' I give him a lot of respect for that."
Video: NYR@PIT: Zuccarello taps puck home for second goal
By that time, the Rangers had already climbed onto level ground, and had 3:48 of power-play time ahead on a fresh sheet of ice. It took the Rangers' top line 26 seconds to answer Dumoulin's goal, when Kreider slipped a backhand pass through Malkin's skates for Zibanejad, whose shot got through DeSmith but stopped dead on the goal line until Zuccarello came crashing in to poke it the rest of the way for his 16th career multigoal game.
Strome tied the score with 2:15 left in the second, collecting the puck after Vlad Namestnikov's redirection had rung the goalpost, and burying his eighth of the year for a 3-3 game.
Video: NYR@PIT: Strome puts home puck to tie the game
"I think we've shown those characteristics throughout the season - we don't quit, we keep coming," Quinn said. "But I'd rather not dig ourselves those holes."
Their biggest hole came just before the third was halfway through. Letang got his second on a rising wrister at 4:36 - 48 seconds after Crosby's minors were up - and Malkin scored at 7:24 and 9:55, his second on a superb spinning backhander at the left dot that he managed to nestle into the top corner, to which the Rangers' rookie netminder couldn't help but tip his cap.
"He just knows where to shoot it," Georgiev said. "Give him credit for being skillful to shoot there."
That's when Quinn called his timeout for a message at the bench: "Just don't let the situation rattle you," he said afterward. "Let's stick to it here, 10 minutes of hockey, let's not let this snowball. Let's play in the moment and do the right things and not let the situation affect us and rattle us."
Video: NYR@PIT: Hayes wires a wrister by DeSmith
They did just that: Hayes got one back with 5:46 left, after Tony DeAngelo found him in space at the left circle to score his 14th of the year. And with six attackers on, Zibanejad tucked in his 26th goal, but with only 18 seconds left it was the last the Rangers could muster, and it was on to Raleigh to finish up the trip against the Hurricanes.
"The way we battled deserves credit, the boys worked hard," said Georgiev. "That's going to help us going to the next game."