The Rangers had barely peered over the .500 mark for the first time this season when they were presented with a golden opportunity against a Penguins team that was just four points ahead in the East Division standings.
But an arduous first period was all it took to disrupt the Blueshirts’ most successful stretch of the season, as the Penguins scored five unanswered goals to knock the Rangers right back into their passive habits in a 5-1 loss at PPG Paints Arena on Sunday night.
Riding a season-high three-game winning streak, the Rangers seemed to be soaring. And when Mika Zibanejad broke through with his first even-strength goal of the season just over a minute into the first period, the team floated further into the clouds.
The possibility of continuing its prosperous run against the top teams in the East suddenly appeared to be attainable. Plus, Zibanejad was skating with more authority than he had all season after registering his first tally since the empty-netter on Feb. 20, seemingly lifting a weight off his shoulders. It all looked so promising.
The Penguins then shot the flying Rangers out of the sky as if they were a flock of birds — boom, boom, boom — stringing together three goals in the span of 61 seconds to send the visitors crashing back down to Earth.
Once those three quick goals pushed the Rangers’ past three games out of sight, Keith Kinkaid replaced Alexandar Georgiev in net for his first NHL game action since Nov. 30, 2019. Head coach David Quinn called a timeout. And the Rangers had their wings clipped by, ironically, the flightless birds.
The Rangers appeared deflated for the remainder of the game, allowing the first-period breakdown to dictate their effort in the last two periods as the Penguins added two more goals in the final 20 minutes.
“We tried to regroup as best as we could in between periods,” said defenseman Jacob Trouba, who played in his first game since sustaining a broken thumb on Feb. 16. “We talked about how we liked a majority of our first period. Give them some credit too, they got a lead and they played a pretty tight game defensively and shut it down and didn’t give up a ton of chances.”
Despite a strong performance from Kinkaid, who turned aside 16 of the 18 shots he faced and proved to be the only player keeping the team competitive, the Rangers never quite shook off the three bullets they absorbed in the first period.
Penguins defenseman John Marino opened the floodgates two seconds after a Pittsburgh power play expired following a Ryan Lindgren interference penalty. Thirty-nine seconds later, Kasperi Kapanen jumped out on a breakaway after K’Andre Miller tripped to make it 2-1 at 16:52.
Before the Rangers could even catch their breath, Sidney Crosby split Lindgren and Adam Fox and flicked the puck past Georgiev for the 3-1 lead.
Kinkaid put on a clinic in relief, making a case for why he should’ve been the starter to begin with. It wasn’t until a Penguins odd-man rush at 13:57 in the third that Evgeni Malkin was able to get one past him. Zach Aston-Reese rounded out the scoring with roughly 3 ½ minutes left in regulation by jamming the puck in after Kinkaid made the initial stop on the rush.
“Playing Georgie tonight had nothing to do with our lack of confidence in Keith,” Quinn said of the difficult goaltending decision in the wake of Igor Shesterkin’s groin injury. “It was very back and forth, trying to decide who was going to play and I wanted to give Georgie an opportunity to go back-to-back and get a little bit of a rhythm. It really had nothing to do with Keith and we have a lot of confidence in him. As far as who’s playing next, we haven’t thought about that at all.”