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Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin did his part, but Rangers force Game 7

Evgeni Malkin had the puck on his stick, just enough open ice in front of him to hold off a couple of oncoming Rangers and break in against New York goalie Igor Shesterkin. Instead of trying something fancy, he fired one of those shots that so few players can — placing the puck with pace over Shesterkin’s pad and under his glove — and the ensuing goal, Malkin’s third of this opening-round series, reclaimed momentum for the Penguins after they spent much of the second period squandering it and another two-goal lead.

As Malkin was celebrating and a sellout crowd at PPG Paints Arena serenaded him with chants of “Geno,” not a lot of people from Pittsburgh to New York would have liked the Rangers chances of winning Game 6.

But win Game 6 the Rangers did.

Or did the Penguins lose it?

And if they did lose it, what does that say about the direction in which this best-of-seven series is headed?

Probably not anything good from the Penguins’ point of view.

For all the points coach Mike Sullivan made — correct points, by the way — about his club dictating terms in the third period and doing mostly what they want at five-on-five, there are certain breaking points that are failing these Penguins.

No. 1 might be their inability to play with a lead in the second period, but that struggle is at least being matched by their atrocious performance on special teams. Those points reared their ugly heads again Friday night.

A 2-0 lead squandered in the second period; sound familiar?

It should.

That is precisely what happened a couple of nights prior in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden. At least that overall giveaway of a potential clinching game could be chalked up to captain Sidney Crosby’s exit via an unpenalized — and approved of by NHL Player Safety — elbow from the Rangers’ Jacob Trouba that concussed Crosby and forced him to miss Game 6 on Friday night.

Crosby skated with the Penguins skill coach Friday morning and Sullivan said Crosby was “in a good place” — leaving hope, at least, he could return for Game 7 in New York on Sunday.

Still, even if Crosby can return to rally a Penguins squad that suddenly needs a spark after seemingly holding a vice-like grip on this series only a few days ago, he alone could not do much more than did Malkin on Friday night.

And what that means is not even a reunion of the Penguins’ MegaPowers centers could be enough to extend the Crosby/Malkin era beyond one more game.

If Sunday is it for Malkin with the Penguins — he’s without a contract for next season, as is defenseman Kris Letang and winger Bryan Rust — the Penguins will have nothing to blame but some bad luck and even worse special teams.

They were 0-for-3 on the power play, including 1:07 of a two-man advantage in the first period. Conversely, the Rangers went 2 for 3 on the advantage, including the first of Mika Zibanejad’s two goals — tallied only a blink after the Penguins’ Evan Rodrigues entered the penalty box five minutes into the second period.

Rodrigues, promoted to the second center for Game 6 because Malkin was elevated into Crosby’s slot on the top line, took an inexcusably careless — if not selfish — retaliation roughing penalty. His error in judgment, or lack of composure, changed Game 6 in a very measurable way.

“He’s got to keep emotions in check,” Sullivan said after Game 6. “We were in a good place. Our team was playing well. We give them a power play, they score and it’s a one-goal game.”

Zibanejad’s first goal felt like a turning point. It proved to be exactly that for the Rangers, who were tied on Zibanejad’s second goal only 1:16 later and ahead on a Chris Kreider deflection just 7:27 afterward.

Kreider’s goal, his third of the series, was also a power-play tally for the Rangers, who are 5 for 15 on the power play. The Penguins are 4 for 8, but three of those scores occurred in blowout victories in Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh.

Those power-play goals — heck, those wins — seem like a lifetime ago.

Then again, that’s how this postseason stuff works: up, up, down, down, left, right … a cheat code for a video game where nothing make sense.

Case in point: The Penguins were one of the NHL’s best penalty kills in the regular season. Against these Rangers, they’re flailing at best.

“They’re doing a good job of switching positioning,” winger Brock McGinn, a Penguins penalty killer, said after Game 6. “It’s tough for us to read.”

Added defenseman Mike Matheson, whose high-sticking double minor fell into the category of Unnecessary Penalty (and led to Kreider’s go-ahead goal for the Rangers before Malkin’s equalizer): “I thought out third period was good. I thought we dictated pace and had a lot of chances. The second period… I’m not sure what happened.”

Matheson and the Penguins best figure out what’s happening in these second periods before Game 7. As the series stands, the Penguins are minus-6 in goal differential in the second period of losses.

It’s almost as if rarely executing over a full game in the regular season has carried over into the playoffs. Go figure.

It’s also almost as if trying to eliminate a good Rangers club while playing in front of an AHL goalie isn’t a great recipe for success, either.

Louis Domingue made a couple of nice saves in the opening period but also looked to be fighting the puck as Game 6 went on. Though his overall series performance is probably on par with what should be expected of an organizational No. 3 at the most important position, Domingue should have stopped the winning goal late in regulation.

It’s probably not a coincidence that Zibanejad broke out in a Game 6 that was missed by Crosby, whose top line had thoroughly outclassed the one anchored by Zibanejad prior to Crosby’s injury. If Crosby can play in Game 7, perhaps the rejuvenated Zibanejad can be canceled out — maybe leaving the door open for Malkin, who in this scenario would be back to centering the Penguins’ second line, to do even more of what he did in Game 6.

Thing is, he did an awful lot of good, if not great, and that isn’t even counting his goal. He was a physical presence, aggressive and looking to impose his will, and maneuvering like the Geno Machino of his 26-year-old self, not the aging veteran that is less than a year removed from a second major knee surgery.

“I thought he was solid,” Sullivan said of Malkin’s Game 6.

So too were the Penguins, except for the momentary lapses when they weren’t. Those lapses were costly, and now have them in a position they probably would have taken before the series began but also one of which they wanted no part only a few days ago.

They need to win in New York to keep their season alive.

Which means they need to win in New York to keep their big three (Crosby, Malkin and Letang) together.

They might need to do it without Crosby, but it’s possible even his return wouldn’t be the biggest were it to happen for Game 7.

Tristan Jarry taking the blue paint of the goal crease might mean even more to these Penguins. He has yet to play because of a broken foot, but fully participated in a morning skate Friday.

At no point in this series has a goalie stolen a game.

Jarry could be that goalie if he plays.

And if he doesn’t, the Penguins will need more of what they received from Malkin in Game 6, and a heck of a lot better from their special teams, while also somehow managing to reverse their sudden second-period meltdowns, to turn Game 7 into a win in a series they not too long ago appeared to have locked down.

(Photo: Kirk Irwin / Getty Images)

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