Sunday, April 17, 2016

Rangers, King gain upper hand

April 16, 2016

Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist makes a third-period save on the Penguins' Bryan Rust during Game 2 of their Eastern Conference first-round series Saturday, April 16, 2016, at Consol Energy Center. (Chaz Palla/Tribune-Review)

Funny how the playoffs work, isn't it?
In Game 1, everything seemed to be working against the Penguins. Already without Evgeni Malkin, they were forced to go to third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff. They rallied around him and won the game.
In Game 2, everything seemed to be working for the Penguins. Malkin returned. Bryan Rust came back. Momentum was on their side. The crowd went nuts when Malkin skated onto the ice after all his teammates.
And the Penguins lost 4-2.
Much of the talk afterward was of how Malkin's presence turned Penguins coach Mike Sullivan into a line-tinkering madman. He couldn't leave the Sidney Crosby or Malkin lines alone. He even put his two superstars together long before the Penguins fell behind.
It didn't work. It rarely does. And while it's wonderful that Geno “gives us options,” as Sullivan noted, the best option probably is to leave him with Rust and Conor Sheary for now. Or at least somewhere separate from Crosby, except on the power play.
That said, any notion the Penguins are better off without Malkin is ludicrous. If teammates had converted one or more of his glorious passes early in the game, we might be talking about a victory. This team cannot hope to go far without him.
As for Sullivan, he had an odd day all around. He showed up to the rink in Rangers colors, wearing a red tie with a blue suit. That felt like a classic power move, but when asked if it was part of his ongoing campaign of psychological warfare, the coach said, “It has nothing to do with it. My wife picked it out.”
Did the Rangers notice?
“Can't say I did,” said forward Tanner Glass. “You'll have to ask around, though. Maybe someone did. People are more observant than I am.”
From this vantage point, the major story was neither Sully's off day nor Malkin's effect on the lineup.
It was the King.
He's back.
And until somebody proves otherwise, he owns the Penguins this time of year.
If you think Henrik Lundqvist and his team were going to be an easy out, you're out of your mind. The Rangers have won five playoff series over the past two years. They went to the Stanley Cup Final two years ago. They went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Final last year.
The notion they might fold because of a little Game 1 adversity was dismissed violently Saturday. They outhit the Penguins, 57-25, including 22-4 in the first period.
That's not the be-all, end-all stat, by any means, but it is reflective of a team that kicked up its compete level.
The hope that Lundqvist wasn't quite himself anymore? Forget it. You saw his brilliant stop on Chris Kunitz with the Penguins leading 1-0 in the second period. You saw him stuff Rust on a breakaway with the Rangers leading 2-1.
Injured by a stick to the eye in Game 1, Lundqvist's mind was eased when cleared by a specialist Friday.
“Right after I left the doctor's office, I was starting to prepare for this one,” he said.
After the win, as they headed to their dressing room, the Rangers whooped it up. Clearly, they felt this was a gigantic win.
“Go home now and get an opportunity to play at home,” Lundqvist said. “I can't wait.”
If the series continues to pit the King against Zatkoff, you cannot like the Penguins' chances. Nothing against Zatkoff, who played OK. It's just being realistic.
Then again, who knows what the Penguins are going to get from Marc-Andre Fleury if and when he returns from his second concussion?
If he starts Game 3 on Tuesday, it will have been nearly three weeks since his last action.
I'm guessing Sullivan's attempted mind games will continue. He's not going to tell anyone outside the room who his goalie will be in Game 3.
But here's the thing: Mind games won't matter if the King is on top of his game.
Like Glass said, “With Hank against most every goalie in this league, you have an advantage.”
Indisputably, it's advantage-Rangers at the moment. They proved they can still ratchet it up a few notches.
Can the Penguins?
We'll find out Tuesday.
Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 FM. Reach him at

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