"Nobody said that it was going to be easy, you know?" said defenseman Kris Letang, after his team's 5-3 loss that extended their series to a Game 7 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday. "It's a race to four. We have to regroup, stay positive and get the job done."
It was the second straight game the Penguins lost a 2-0 lead in the second period to a Rangers' rally, losing both games. In Game 5, the loss of captain Sidney Crosby to injury left Pittsburgh stunned as the Rangers rallied. In Game 6, without Crosby in the lineup, it was undisciplined play and ineffective special teams by the Penguins that led to New York's win.
"I'd like us to maintain the lead, you know," said coach Mike Sullivan. "We were in a good place. The team was playing well. We give them a power play, they score and then it's a one-goal game."
Leading 3-2 in the series, Pittsburgh was up 2-0 in the second period after Jeff Carter and Bryan Rust solved Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin in the first period, leading to loud mocking chants of "Igor!" from the home fans.
But then came the turning point. Penguins forward Evan Rodrigues was cross-checked by Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren. The referees didn't whistle a penalty, but they did on Rodrigues's retaliation. The Rangers only needed five seconds to convert on the power play on a Mika Zibanejad goal.
New York has scored goals in bunches this series and did it again in Game 6 as Zibanejad scored his second of the game and the series just 1:16 after his first goal, tying the game 2-2.
Sullivan said Rodrigues "simply can't" take a penalty in that spot, especially with the Rangers' potent power play ready to get them back in the game.
"He can't," Sullivan said. "He just simply can't. He's got to keep his emotions in check. That's a necessary part of winning at this time of year."
The Rangers were 2-for-3 on the power play, including Chris Kreider's second-period goal that gave New York a 3-2 lead. Evgeni Malkin would tie the game on a breakaway goal, but Kreider's goal with 1:28 left in regulation in the third period ended up as the game-winner. The Penguins were 0-for-3 on the power play.
"I think I'm probably stating the obvious, but special teams were the key to the game," Sullivan said. "We've got to be better."
A key to that power play is Crosby, who was ruled out of Game 6 with a concussion, sources told ESPN's Emily Kaplan. He was injured in Game 5 after taking a high hit from Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba. He was ruled out of Game 6, as were forward Rickard Rakell, who was injured on a hit in Game 1, and defenseman Brian Dumoulin, who was also missing since Game 1.
The Penguins lost forward Brian Boyle to an injury after just two shifts in the first period of Game 6, depriving them of one of the team's best penalty killers. Playing through injury losses was the story of the series for the Penguins.
Their regular-season starting goalie Tristan Jarry missed the series with an injury. His backup Casey DeSmith was injured in double overtime in Game 1 and was replaced by third-stringer Louis Domingue, who had appeared in only two regular-season games. Domingue battled through the series and has rarely been a liability for the Penguins. But he struggled to make a save on Kreider's game-winner, with the puck bouncing off his glove and back into the net.
The Penguins' attention now turns to Game 7, and who might be available for that game. Crosby skated with skills coach Ty Hennes on Friday, and Sullivan said the team captain is "in a good place." Jarry practiced with the Penguins on Friday. His status for Game 7 hasn't been determined.