James Neal and Evgeni Malkin were clearly more than ready for the NHL season to start, as their dominant play has powered the Penguins to a 2-0 start on the road against quality opponents.
A little more than 24 hours after they opened the 48-game season with a close victory at Philadelphia, the Penguins played “keep away” for most of Sunday night’s 6-3 win over the Rangers.
Neal scored twice and Malkin recorded three assists to help support goalie Tomas Vokoun, who marked his Penguins debut with an impressive 31-save performance. Beyond the goal output, Pittsburgh kept the sold-out Madison Square Garden crowd quiet with tremendous puck possession and constant pressure for most of the game.
Tyler Kennedy, Matt Niskanen, Pascal Dupuis and Kris Letang also scored for the Penguins, who chased Rangers goalie and defending Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist in the second period.
Unlike Saturday in Philadelphia, Sidney Crosby was very visible in all three zones, but especially in the offensive third. He assisted on Niskanen’s first-period goal with a clean faceoff win and fired five shots on net, second on the team to Neal, who had seven for the second straight game.
Neal’s lightning-quick release was on display on both goals, the first of which came on the Penguins’ first power play less than two minutes into the game. Malkin pushed a diagonal pass to Neal from right circle to left, and Neal gunned a wrister past Lundqvist for the night’s opening tally.
New York captain Ryan Callahan buried a point-blank rebound during a 5-on-3 Rangers power play to tie the score midway through the first. But Kennedy, who scored Saturday’s first goal, struck again early on Sunday when he followed Joe Vitale’s strong left-wing rush to the net.
Niskanen whistled a shot off Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi and under Lundqvist with 1:10 left in the first, giving the Penguins a two-goal edge at the first intermission.
In the second period, Dupuis’ first power-play goal as a Penguin triggered New York coach John Tortorella to swap netminders. Dupuis converted Malkin’s slick centering pass nine minutes into the frame, finishing a transition play started by Neal’s quick headman feed from his own zone.
The second period was particularly good for the Penguins, who helped inspire boos from the MSG audience when the Rangers couldn’t control the puck for any meaningful length of time. Pittsburgh outshot New York 14-9 in the middle frame, seemingly in midseason form already.
Much like Saturday in Philadelphia, the Penguins couldn’t maintain their best game for the entire 60 minutes. Neal raised the Pittsburgh advantage to 5-1 by converting another Malkin centering feed, but the Rangers made things interesting late with a pair of quick goals soon after.
However, Vokoun made a favorable first impression by displaying poise on some wild scrambles in front of his net. The veteran’s calmness provided an effective foundation on a night when he didn’t see action for long stretches of play. All three New York goals were scored from close range, including Nash’s shorthanded breakaway that made the score 5-3 with 5:15 to go in the third.
But in another similarity to the Penguins’ win over the Flyers, an empty-net goal clinched two points in the standings, with Letang doing the honors from center ice this time.
Along with Malkin and Neal, who have combined for seven points thus far, Letang could make a case for being among Pittsburgh’s best over the course of the opening weekend. His skating and puckhandling abilities have been difference-makers when it comes to puck possession; the sixth-year defender also picked up an assist on Neal’s first tally.
With two road wins in the hopper against two teams that figure to challenge them for the Atlantic Division title, the Penguins have two days off before opening their home schedule Wednesday night against Toronto.