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 into Pittsburgh, the Rangers seemed to be flying high. 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 more attainable. Plus, Zibanejad was skating with more authority with that weight seemingly lifted off his shoulders. What could go wrong?
The Penguins then shot the Rangers out of the sky like a bird — boom, boom, boom — stringing together three goals in the span of 61 seconds to send the visitors crashing back down to earth.
After those three quick goals, 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 quickly 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 goals more in the final 20 minutes. Despite a strong performance from Kinkaid, who turned aside 16 of the 18 shots he faced and proved to be only player keeping the team competitive, the Rangers never quite shook off the three-goal first period.
Penguins defenseman John Marino opened the floodgates two seconds after a Pittsburgh power play expired in the first period 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 the Penguins jumped out on an 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.