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."
If the continuing ability of the Rangers to rally around St. Louis remains a compelling storyline, the lines of questioning for the Penguins postgame were fairly predictable and will continue to be so until Tuesday night.
Chief among them: What is wrong with Sidney Crosby?
The Penguins captain struggled to generate much that was positive in Game 5, registering just one shot and showing his frustration on several occasions, especially at the end of the second period during a melee at the horn, when he was assessed a cross-checking penalty. He was held without a point for the second straight game and has just a goal and an assist through the six games in this series; Crosby bristled when asked where he felt his effectiveness was at.
"I don't know. I think I'd always like to generate more. Try and compete and generate stuff out there but I'll leave that to you to decide," he said. "It's a matter of taking advantage of your chances and capitalizing. Trying to go to the right areas and find ways to create. But sometimes it's easier than others but ultimately you've got to find a way to be successful."
Still, there were so many players about whom the same questions could be asked, it seems a little unfair to single out the Penguin captain.
James Neal looks lost, even though he was credited with seven shots to lead all players Sunday, and one wonders if the switch away from longtime center Evgeni Malkin, who has played extensively with Crosby and Chris Kunitz, is having a detrimental effect on Neal's effectiveness. He has a goal and two assists in this series and just four points in 12 postseason games.
Kunitz, who got in the way of what would have been a sure goal by Crosby during a 5-on-3 in Game 5, was likewise AWOL in Game 6. He too has just one goal in this series.
We have seen Fleury play at an exceptional level in this series, pitching back-to-back shutouts during the three-game winning streak, but he was beaten by an ordinary Carl Hagelin backhand to make the score 2-0 just 6:25 into the first period. And then he could not get his glove on a loose puck in front of his crease late in the second period, allowing Derick Brassard to restore the two-goal lead after the Pens scored their first and only goal when a harmless shot bounced in off Ranger defenseman Kevin Klein.
Can all of these players be better? Of course. We have seen it with our very own eyes not so many days ago. But do they have the will? Because that's what it has come to, no? A questioning of this team's mindset.
Head coach Dan Bylsma was asked if he needs more from Crosby, and even before his answer came off his lips, you knew instinctively what it would be.
"Right now, we need everything from everybody. We need everyone's best," Bylsma said. "We need everyone's best for Game 7. We haven't been there, maybe, at all times in the last few games but we have to be there for Game 7."
He's right, of course. If the Penguins win Tuesday, all of this, these two botched elimination games, will quickly become a memory. If they lose, it will provide an ugly backdrop for an offseason of hard questions and even harder answers about the makeup of the team and what needs to be changed.
Veteran defenseman Rob Scuderi was asked about the need to keep winning to keep the core of this team together.
"I don't think that's my area, really," he said. "You just want to keep your season going. Regardless of how we've gotten to this point, we want to keep our season going and we've got a chance to do that in Game 7 and that's what we're going to do."
In 48 hours, we'll find out whether the team's belief in itself is justified or not.
Maybe it means something. Maybe it means nothing. But it was interesting that as the reporters filed out of the locker room and the Penguins' training staff gathered up the last of their gear and belongings, there was owner Mario Lemieux in the room along with Fleury and Crosby. The owner doesn't make a habit of visiting the locker room. It's not his style except in extraordinary or critical moments.
But these are, in many ways, extraordinary times for this team.