NEW YORK – The marathon that is the NHL season has been reduced to something that falls between a furious sprint and a briskly paced 15K race. With the echo of the starter's pistol still in the air, the Pittsburgh Penguins have galloped to the front of the pack in the Eastern Conference.
James Neal scored twice and Evgeni Malkin had three assists as the Penguins pounded the New York Rangers 6-3 at Madison Square Garden for their second road win in as many days against two of the conference's elite squads.
The Penguins ran roughshod over the Rangers and chased reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist with four goals on 18 shots before the game was half-over. Tomas Vokoun, signed to back up incumbent starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, was tremendous over the first two periods and earned the win in his first start with 31 saves.
After building an early lead in Philadelphia on Saturday and slipping past the Flyers for a 2-1 win, the Penguins followed that performance with a far more convincing victory.
"It's a good start," said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who registered his first point of the year with an assist on Matt Niskanen's first-period goal. "We've done a lot of good things the past couple games and I think tonight we got away from things a little bit in the third but other than that, we've played some good periods of hockey. You just want to keep that going and keep getting better."
"We know the start of the season, two hard opponents, two opponents on the road, two tough buildings, to come in here, especially on back-to-back nights, their home opener, against a really good team, we're definitely pleased to be going home with two wins," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We know divisional play in a shortened season, two teams we think are going to be very good, they're very important games right off the hop."
These two wins for Pittsburgh have infused the Penguins with confidence, but the two losses the Rangers suffered this weekend at the hands of the Bruins and Penguins have been the result of ineptitude in nearly every facet.
The Rangers fell behind early and failed to recover after a sloppy first 30 minutes Saturday against the Boston Bruins and eventually fell 3-1. On Sunday, it was yet another game in which the mistakes and costly penalties doomed the Rangers against a quality opponent.
Brad Richards took an interference penalty 37 seconds into the contest, and Neal made the Rangers pay with the first of his two goals. Neal was left alone at the top of the left circle and snapped a shot past Lundqvist to open the scoring.
The Rangers killed all seven penalties against the Bruins on Saturday, but that was based largely on Lundqvist making 11 saves while shorthanded. The Penguins finished those chances on Sunday, going 2-for-5 with the extra man.
Ryan Callahan equalized at the 9:55 mark during a 5-on-3 power play, but two mistakes by Rangers blueliners led to goals that put the Penguins ahead for good.
First, Tyler Kennedy scored his second goal of the year by stashing home the rebound of a Joe Vitale shot. Vitale stepped past defenseman Stu Bickel along the right-wing boards, drove to the net, and created the chaos that led to Kennedy reaping the benefits.
Less than four minutes later, Niskanen scored from the blue line when his shot off a face-off win by Crosby hit the skate of Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and skittered past Lundqvist to make it 3-1. The draw was set up when, after a turnover in the neutral zone with Marc Staal leading a rush, Penguins forward Tanner Glass countered with a shot from the slot that Lundqvist stopped and covered.
"The execution wasn't there," Staal said. "The little passes, the details that get us out of our end zone quickly and not hemmed in weren't there. We were just a little disjointed and it took us a while to get the puck back, and when we did we were too tired to many any plays with it."
"It's not an individual thing," Rangers coach John Tortorella said. "As a group, we haven't played well the past two games."
Pascal Dupuis finished a tic-tac-toe passing play with the Penguins on a power play midway through the second period that ended Lundqvist's night. It was the first time since March 31, 2011 that he was removed from a game because of poor play (he left a game against the Edmonton Oilers last season due to a cramp).
The Rangers went the entire 2011-12 season without removing a goaltender for ineffectiveness.
"Personally, it was a tough night," Lundqvist said. "I really don't have an explanation other than we just have to work harder and keep getting better."
Neal beat Martin Biron (19 saves on 20 shots) early in the third period to make it 5-1. Rick Nash and Taylor Pyatt scored their first goals as Rangers to make things interesting, but Penguins defenseman Kris Letang deposited the puck into an empty net to finish the scoring with 1:52 remaining.
It was a particularly sweet victory for Vokoun, who missed the entire postseason with the Capitals in 2012 due to a lower-body injury and could only watch as the Rangers beat the Caps in seven games in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
Now with the Penguins strictly as a backup, he was stellar in the early going before the Penguins pulled away. He stopped 21 of 22 shots over the first two periods and 12 of 13 in the first period when the game still could've gone either way.
"That was a pretty tough injury to have," Vokoun said. "It took a long time to heal. I think I benefitted from the lockout because I don't think I was still 100 percent in September. As much as it was hard, things happen you can't control and that's life. It was hard because I came there with a chance to be able to play in the playoffs and it didn't happen. But that's life. Things aren't always going to go exactly how you want it, too."
Things are going perfectly for the Penguins so far this season. They'll get two days of rest before their home opener against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Wednesday night. The Rangers, meanwhile, get two days off as well before back-to-back games against the Bruins and Flyers.
Everything is compressed and magnified in a shortened season, and right now, the Penguins are in the driver's seat in the Atlantic Division.
"We're off to a good start," Neal said. "It's a shortened season, so it's huge to come out of the gates fast. It's two good tests for us in Phily and New York. We did a job in both buildings and it feels good in our room."
Follow Dave Lozo on Twitter: @DaveLozo
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