NEW YORK – Facing a playoff hole from which they have never escaped, and following their most disheartening loss of the season, the New York Rangers boldly proclaimed that their series against the Pittsburgh Penguins was far from over.
Perhaps it was genuine confidence with a tinge of false bravado. Whatever it was, it has turned out to be true.
Now the Rangers need just one more win, and the pressure is squarely on the shoulders of the Penguins, who clearly are feeling the frustration of losing control of a series that was firmly in their grasp less than a week ago.
New York staved off elimination for the second straight game with a 3-1 home win over the Penguins on Sunday night. Coupled with a 5-1 victory at Pittsburgh on Friday, the Rangers have erased a 3-1 series deficit and forced a Game 7 in the Steel City on Tuesday.
Only once have the Rangers sent a series they trailed 3-1 to the distance, and they didn't win it.
Very few expected a deciding game of this series after New York lost 4-2 at home in Game 4 and recorded only 15 shots in a spiritless defeat.
"We wanted to give ourselves a chance, and we did," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "Now we've got a Game 7."
The Rangers took control early in Game 6, grabbing the lead 3:34 in and making it 2-0 at 6:25 on goals by Martin St. Louis and Carl Hagelin.
Pittsburgh cut its deficit in half in the first period when Brandon Sutter scored, but Henrik Lundqvist stopped 36 shots to keep the Penguins at bay the rest of the way.
Just as the Rangers had to turn things completely around after Game 4, the Penguins have to do the same in order to return to the Eastern Conference finals for the second straight year and fourth time in seven seasons.
"Right now, we need everyone's best for Game 7," Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said. "We haven't been there at all times in the last few games. We have to be there for Game 7."
Pittsburgh fell behind early in Game 5 at home on Friday, too. The Penguins then mustered only one goal in Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, where they won twice earlier in the week.
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby has scored just one goal in this series and in the entire playoffs. He is starting to get agitated by the physical nature in which the Rangers are playing him. He took a penalty at the end of the second period, and both teams engaged in several big scrums — including one after the game's final buzzer.
"With a minute left in the game, emotions run high," Crosby said. "I don't think that's why we lost. We put ourselves in a bad position early. We fought hard and tried to get back, but you can't continue to do that in the playoffs. You can't start like that."
The team that has scored first has won every game.
The Penguins are 1-7 at home under Bylsma when having a chance to clinch a series. Overall, the Penguins are 2-6 in Game 7s in Pittsburgh.
On the flip side, the Rangers are 9-2 in their past 11 games when facing elimination, dating to Game 6 of the first round in 2012 at Ottawa. New York has never won a series it trailed 3-1 and has never beaten the Penguins in the playoffs.
That trend might be changing, largely due to the emotional lift St. Louis brought to the Rangers this weekend.
St. Louis rejoined his teammates for Game 5, one day after his mother's sudden death and after a quick trip to Montreal to be with his family. That dedication inspired his teammates and carried over to Sunday.
"It's probably one of the cooler things I've been a part of in my professional career," said Derek Stepan, who earned the first assist on St. Louis' goal. "The emotion on that goal is something that I will never forget."
Fans were already chanting "Mar-ty, Mar-ty" on his first shift. The cheers got louder after he scored. St. Louis, the first star of the game, patted his heart when he came out to an ovation from the crowd.
"Mother's Day, my dad is here, my sister is here," St. Louis said. "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."
Derick Brassard made it 3-1 in the second period.
Buoyed by another early lead, the Rangers pressed for more, and got it on Hagelin's unassisted goal at 6:25.
Bylsma burned his lone timeout to try to calm his team, and Pittsburgh cut its deficit in half before the end of the first.
Pittsburgh twice challenged Lundqvist with short-handed breakaways in the second, and the Rangers had a goal waved off at 5:55 when Chris Kreider was called for goalie interference after he was shoved from behind into Marc-Andre Fleury by Kris Letang.
NOTES: The Penguins dropped to 9-3 at the Garden in the playoffs and 15-15 overall in Game 6s. ... Lundqvist made his 79th consecutive playoff start, tying Fleury for third place on the NHL list among goalies with one team. ... The Rangers were 0 for 6 on the power play. Pittsburgh was 0 for 4.