NEW YORK -- And so a lopsided series in which the New York Rangers looked to be sapped of the will to win and were headed for an uncomfortable offseason of hard decisions has seen a complete and dramatic role reversal, with the Pittsburgh Penguins now facing the prospect of an offseason of turmoil if they cannot turn the tables once more.
That's what happens when you consistently fail to start a game in a competitive, competent manner and blow a 3-1 series lead, which is exactly what has befallen the Penguins after Sunday's Mother's Day debacle in Madison Square Garden.
With the Rangers handing the Penguins a 3-1 defeat, they have outscored the Pens 8-2 in the two elimination games the Rangers have won after it looked like the Penguins had resolved their personality disorders of earlier in this playoff season and were set to sail into their second straight Eastern Conference finals.
That diagnosis of "returning to normal" appears to have been premature. And now the Penguins face a one-game test of their resolve on Tuesday night in Pittsburgh that stands as a defining moment for this talented franchise.
The winner will advance to the Eastern Conference finals. The loser? All of a sudden the ramifications of a Game 7 loss appear to be much more severe for the Penguins than for the Rangers, who have shown tremendous resolve in elevating their play after three straight losses in the middle of the series.
Does anyone think for a moment ownership and management in Pittsburgh will sit idly by if the Rangers complete the comeback with a third straight win?
"All Game 7s are big," captain Sidney Crosby said after Sunday's loss, when asked if Tuesday loomed as such a defining moment. "We can't change what's kind of gotten us to this point. All we can do is make sure that we show up for Game 7.
"It's one game. It's pretty clear. We can be better and we know that. Got to go out there and be our best when it means the most."
It remains shocking that this series will come to such a climactic conclusion on Tuesday night after the Penguins had roared to a 3-1 series lead. And yet Sunday, for the second game in a row and third time in this series, the Penguins started a game in neutral while the Rangers began in overdrive.
"Obviously, we'd like to start better. Things that were lacking in Game 5, we were better in tonight," defenseman Matt Niskanen said. Puck battles, compete level, "was better but we make a couple of mistakes and you're down in the hockey game. It's tough to come back," he added.
The Rangers, still riding the emotional wave that saw them shock Pittsburgh 5-1 in Game 5 after the sudden death of winger Martin St. Louis' mother, jumped on the Penguins early again in Game 6 and scored twice in the first 6:25. It was more than fitting that it was St. Louis who got a bouncing puck to go past netminder Marc-Andre Fleury for the first goal.
"I know she helped me through this," St. Louis told reporters after the game. "Mother's Day, my dad's here, my sister's here. It's been a tough time for my whole family. To be able to get the lead in the first period, it was a good one."