It was obvious the Rangers had brought the good vibes home with them from up North, because there seemed to be some carryover going on from Saturday's overtime win in Toronto to Monday's first period at Madison Square Garden. But the Blueshirts on this night just couldn't build the bridge from first period to second.
It was an ideal start out of the gates for the Rangers, racing out to a two-goal lead in the game's first 15 minutes, only to absorb five unanswered goals from there on out in a 5-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Two rookies - Brendan Lemieux and Vinni Lettieri - got the scoring started in the opening frame, in support of their fellow rookie Alexandar Georgiev. Lettieri's goal came on a power play and was his first in the NHL this season after he led the Hartford Wolf Pack with 23 in 44 games.
But Nick Bjugstad answered Lettieri's marker right away, and Justin Schultz scored on a power play early in what would turn into a three-goal second period for the visitors. The 42-year-old Matt Cullen scored the tiebreaking goal, Teddy Blueger tacked on a pair and Matt Murray made it hold up with 33 saves to improve to 5-0 in his career at Madison Square Garden.
After a strong opening period from the Rangers, Brady Skjei described the second period as "a pond-hockey-style game that plays into their favor."
"Yeah, it was a real good start," Lemieux said. "But we've got to play a full 60 and we didn't have a good second. That's what happens against a good hockey team."
"We just weren't able to sustain all the good things we did in the first period," David Quinn added.
Quinn announced before the game that the Rangers had elected to shut down Jesper Fast for the remainder of the season, leaving the Rangers without a player that Quinn on Monday called "invaluable to us."
Fast has been dealing with an upper-body injury for much of the season, playing through it while often trying to rest and recover during practice days. But the Swedish winger - who entering his sixth season as a Ranger was named one of the team's alternate captains back in the Fall - has now missed three games consecutively, and the Rangers decided the time was right to call it a season.
Not that Fast went quietly. "He wants to be out there tonight," Quinn said before the game.
"He's the ultimate pro, and he's as coachable a human being and as team a guy as you'll ever have on your roster. He's invaluable to us," the head coach said. "I always had heard great things about him, but he far exceeded anything I had heard."
Quinn said that, at this point, it does not appear that Fast will require any offseason surgery.
With alternate captains Fast, Chris Kreider and Marc Staal unavailable against the Penguins - those last two in day-to-day mode because of lower-body injuries - Skjei and Kevin Shattenkirk were wearing the letters on Monday night along with Mika Zibanejad. And Shattenkirk had a big hand in getting the Rangers off and running.
Video: PIT@NYR: Lemieux nets opening tally on wicked wrister
It was his pressure on Sidney Crosby at the Ranger line that forced a turnover, and the Rangers' top line took it from there - Zibanejad kicking it wide on the left to Pavel Buchnevich, who swung it back across for Lemieux to open up and shoot from his off side, beating Murray over the glove hand for his 12th of the season and third in a Blueshirt.
The assist for Buchnevich extended his points streak to four games, while the assist for Zibanejad was his team-leading 40th of the season.
In addition to the goal, Lemieux drew a pair of penalties in the first two periods, the first when he was hooked at the net front at 13:58.
Lettieri turned that power play into target practice. The righty shot, getting a look on the Rangers' second PP unit, set up shop above the left circle and fired a one-timer each time the puck came his way - his third blast was the charm, beating Murray stick-side for a two-goal Ranger lead at 15:15. In all, Lettieri put five shots on goal during his career-high 19:13 of ice.
Video: PIT@NYR: Lettieri blasts one-timer for PPG
"Obviously I'm a shooter. You guys probably know that just by watching me," said Lettieri, who nearly scored a second when he dove headlong for a sitting puck in the crease. "One of our mentalities on the power play is just to get shots whenever you can. Our power play on that first one was really moving it well. I was in a good position to get a pass, and made no mistake there. "Tony made a fantastic pass" - that's Tony DeAngelo, whose assist was his 14th in his last 19 games - "I give him a lot of credit there."
"I liked his purpose, I liked his intentions. Obviously he had a good night on the power play tonight," Quinn said of Lettieri. "He's played more of a straight-line game, I thought, and he's made some progress defensively. Those are the things he's going to have to continue to work on and be consistent with night in and night out."
It was only 36 seconds after his goal that Bjugstad answered back for the visitors, when Georgiev (31 saves) kicked a rebound his way at the left circle and he chopped a rolling puck back through the goaltender.
"To go up 2-0 and give one right back," Quinn said, "to not build any momentum off the 2-0 lead, was part of the issue" - but so was the start to the second period, when Schultz's power-play drive off a feed from Crosby tied the score 61 seconds in.
"Even after the first period we felt good about the score and the way we were playing," Quinn said. "And then for them to tie it so quickly really kind of seemed to deflate us, and we just never got back on track. Never got back to doing the things we did in the first period."
Cullen put Pittsburgh in front at 7:17 with a spinning short-side shot from low in the right circle. Blueger's shorthanded goal at 13:12 was only the third shorthanded goal the Rangers have allowed all season, and the first since Nov. 10 - a span of 58 games.
"First period we were all over them. Just kind of got away from it in the second," Skjei said. "Got to move on from this - another big game in Boston coming up" - this one facing off on Wednesday night, when the Rangers will look to sweep the season series with the Bruins.