-- 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.
As for Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, the subject of so much debate in recent days, he was the best player on the ice not named Lundqvist. He was held without a goal for the 13th straight postseason game but he was a dynamo, at one point undressing Ryan McDonagh and rifling a shot over the Rangers' goal. He led all Penguins and was tied for the game lead with six shots.
Letang said Crosby was inspiring to everyone in the Penguins' locker room.
"Good win for [Fleury]. I think he played outstanding," Letang said. "Sid was the most dangerous player out there tonight. But to put them on their heels with the momentum right now, it's huge."
Letang might illustrate the great distance this team appears to have come since the start of the playoffs. Early on against Columbus, he was benched briefly and looked out of sorts in the first few games. On Sunday, he was solid in his own zone, scored the winner and added two assists. His goal, the 15th playoff marker of his career, tied him with Hall of Famer Larry Murphy for first among Penguins defensemen in career playoff goals.
No two games are the same in a season, Letang said.
"We try to do our best every night," he said. "Sometimes there's mistakes but tonight I think we respond really well."
On the home side, the Rangers will be looking to prove Monday night they're not what they looked like for most of Sunday night's loss: worn out.
Monday's game will be their fifth in seven days and already this series is following the pattern of their seven-game, first-round victory over the Philadelphia Flyers that saw them unable to win two games in a row.
Whether fatigue was a factor in Sunday's loss or will be a factor in New York on Monday, it's hard to imagine the Rangers will be able to keep pace with the Penguins going forward if they don't solve their power-play woes. They went 0-for-4 with the man advantage and now have gone 29 straight opportunities without finding the back of the net.
Their inability to generate much on the first three chances early in the game was especially disappointing. So was the play of Rick Nash, the other star whose lack of production is a significant storyline in this series. He had three shots and a couple of decent looks but is still without a goal this spring.
"It's just good to get home," said Richards. "We came in here, got a big win in two games and now we go home and we'll use our fans and our energy and try to jump on them there. The great thing is if you get a win tomorrow right away and our goal is that, and that's two out of three and that sets you up good."
Still, Lundqvist and other Rangers noted that Game 2 featured a stark difference in the amount of time they spent in the Penguins' zone from Game 1.
"They just spent a lot of time in our own end. That was the biggest difference," Lundqvist said. "They came hard the whole night. It was something we expected."
With such a short turnaround, part of the challenge for both teams will be the mental element of the game. The Penguins will be trying to guard against a letdown, while the Rangers will be trying to keep the idea they might be tired from becoming a reality.
Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault observed that Lundqvist didn't look tired. And if he wasn't tired, then no one else in that room should feel tired either.
For better or worse we won't have to wait long to find out who earns top marks in the second part of this test of wills.