PITTSBURGH -- Two teams, two cities, two games, a 24-hour battle for control of this Eastern Conference semifinal series.
As the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins scurried to gather their bags and skate-sharpening gear and sticks and rolls of tape and hustle to the airport and their waiting charter aircraft, it was the Penguins who had earned top grades in the first crucial part of this two-part test.
Turning in their best performance of the postseason, in fact perhaps their single-best performance of the season, the Penguins evened this series at one game apiece with a 3-0 victory Sunday night.
Were it not for the otherworldly play of Henrik Lundqvist in the Rangers' goal stopping 32 of 34 shots and making a dozen sensational saves on Grade A scoring chances, this game would have been decided much earlier in the evening and by a much wider margin.
Now, the second and most important part of this test awaits both teams with Game 3 set for Monday night at Madison Square Garden.
There, the Penguins will have a chance to prove they have turned some kind of corner, that this wire-to-wire win in Game 2 was not an aberration. The Penguins had given signals at the end of the first round they had turned such a corner, but they stumbled badly in the first period of Game 1 against the Rangers Friday, falling behind 2-0 and ultimately losing 3-2 in overtime on Derick Brassard's winner.
Game 2 Sunday was a powerful statement, to be sure, but the real statement will be made in Game 3 Monday night in New York.
"We didn't want to go down two games to none. We didn't play our best hockey in the first game but I thought this game we came out and just skated and played well and then played a full 60-minute effort," Penguins winger Lee Stempniak said as staff quickly hustled bags out of the strangely empty Penguins locker room. "I don't know if there's so much momentum from game to game within the series, but it's definitely a quick turnaround, so it'll be a tough test in New York. It's a huge game for us. We want to go in there and get the win and make the series 2-1 and take it from there. But it'll be a challenge."
What made Sunday's win so impressive was the fact that almost every question that had been plaguing the Penguins was answered. Marc-Andre Fleury was not nearly as busy as his counterpart, but he was solid when he needed to be, such as in the first period when the overexuberant Penguins took three straight minor penalties before the midpoint. Fleury ended up stopping all 22 Rangers shots he faced.
After blowing leads repeatedly in the first round against the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Penguins made a second-period goal by Kris Letang stand up until late in the third, when Jussi Jokinen added an insurance marker on the power play with 3:30 left in regulation. Evgeni Malkin then added an empty-netter.
The Rangers managed just five shots in the third period, half as many as the Penguins, and the Penguins were steadfast in their commitment to playing strong defense. Paul Martin, for one, broke up a dangerous rush by Brad Richards with about five minutes to go in the third and, in the same sequence, Malkin backchecked diligently to thwart another Rangers rush.