In the final regular season match-up at least, Sidney Crosby and the Penguins sent a message. For the third consecutive time, the Rangers lost to the Pens. This time, it came 3-2 in overtime on a Crosby deflection with 30 seconds left. The win moved the Pens within three points of second place. The Rangers have 95 with six games remaining while Pittsburgh has 92 with seven left.
The two close rivals that have met the last two postseasons are on a collision course to do so again. For a second straight Spring, it could be a first round rematch. Last year, the Rangers prevailed in five thanks to Carl Hagelin’s overtime winner. A year later, Hagelin is playing a major role in the Pens’ resurgence. After relocating from Anaheim to Pittsburgh, the speedy Swede has fit in seamlessly. His speed has allowed Phil Kessel to blossom. Both were factors at MSG.
Hagelin combined with Kessel for a tying goal during the second period. His hustle forced former teammate Henrik Lundqvist into a mistake. Hagelin outraced Keith Yandle to a loose puck and threw a tricky low shot off Lundqvist that Kessel got to for a rebound home which tied it at two. Playing with Nick Bonino, they wreaked havoc on a slow Ranger defense that had issues handling their speed. While the focus was on Crosby’s line, it was the Pens’ speedy second line that was their best. Hagelin and Kessel combined for nine shots, 13 attempts and a goalpost.
Skating without injured star center Evgeni Malkin, the Pens haven’t missed a beat. They blew out the Red Wings on Saturday 7-2. It was the Hagelin-Bonino-Kessel unit that combined for 12 points including five-point efforts from Bonino and Kessel while Hagelin netted two goals. It’s that improved speed and forechecking that has helped Pittsburgh improve under coach Mike Sullivan. The Pens are no longer easy to play against. It might explain why they won the season series from the Rangers taking three of four.
Another factor is a healthy Kris Letang. Easily their most indispensable player, the top defenseman has been playing some of his best hockey. How much did Sullivan ride his horse? Try 38 shifts for a game high 31:45.That included his point shot off a Crosby faceoff win that led to the Pens’ captain’s overtime winner at 4:30. It was Crosby’s 32nd of the season. Letang has 43 assists and 58 points in 65 games. He probably won’t be nominated for the Norris but must be controlled if the Rangers see the Pens again.
It wasn’t all negative for the Blueshirts. Finally, they saw some big positives from Eric Staal. The deadline pickup had just a goal and two assists in his first 13 games since coming over from Carolina. Facing the Pens, he was the Rangers’ best forward tallying twice while finding chemistry with Kevin Hayes (2 assists) and Jesper Fast (2 assists). Staal nearly had a hat trick on a feed from younger brother Marc but Marc-Andre Fleury denied his bid. Had he converted, they may have prevailed in regulation and put more distance between themselves and the Pens. Both are fighting for home ice.
Playing for the second straight night with Hayes and Fast, Staal got the game’s first goal on a neat one-handed deflection off a good Hayes feed at 4:19. Fast started it with a good play in the neutral zone. His pass led Hayes on a two-on-one with Staal able to deflect his feed past Fleury for his second as a Ranger.
In what was a high tempo first period in which the two rivals combined for 24 shots with the Rangers holding a 13-11 edge, the Staal unit was dangerous throughout. They were easily their best line. Both goalies had to be sharp. Still nursing a one-goal lead, a defensive breakdown led to one-time Blueshirt Matt Cullen tying it with 4:11 left. He was able to redirect a Trevor Daley point shot on Lundqvist that he couldn’t control. Behind Marc Staal and Dan Boyle, Cullen tapped one home for his 13th.
The second was a mirror image. Again, it was Eric Staal who put the Rangers ahead for a second time. On a persistent Hayes’ forecheck in front, Fast stole the puck and passed across for a wicked Staal one-timer that beat Fleury high to the short side. A sniper’s goal by the former Cane, whose goal came at 2:07 from Fast and Hayes.
But again, the Pens fought back. Thanks to the blinding speed of Hagelin, he forced Lundqvist into a mistake. Never a great puck mover, he got caught. As he recovered, Hagelin threw a turnaround shot that resulted in a juicy rebound which Kessel got to, flipping a backhand upstairs for his 23rd at 8:36. On the play, Dan Girardi went to Hagelin against the boards and Yandle was late to Kessel resulting in the tying goal. It was a bang bang play with Hagelin and Kessel’s speed the difference.
A lazy Rick Nash turnover nearly led to the Pens going ahead. A pass to no one in the neutral zone was stolen by Kessel, who had a head of steam. The dangerous sniper fired off the right post. On the night, the Pens hit two posts including one late in regulation on a funny carom.
The Pens outshot the Rangers 9-5 in the third. Their speed was noticeable. They’re a lot harder on the puck under Sullivan. They also got the period’s only two power plays. Both on Derick Brassard for foolish stick infractions. Both for high-sticking. One came with over 11 minutes left. The other came with two seconds remaining. Just lazy play by a talented player who knows better.
In each instance, the penalty kill bailed Brassard out. With the Pens’ power play carrying into overtime, they had a 4-on-3. Some strong work from Ryan McDonagh and then Marc Staal allowed them to escape trouble. That included a diving poke check and clear by Staal. As much as his play at even strength has suffered, he’s still a valuable penalty killer. In a lot of aspects, he and Girardi mirror each other. Both must be better for this team to make a run this Spring.
Girardi made a diving block on a late Pens’ chance. It might have saved a goal. The shot was point blank from Kessel. It was McDonagh who also sprawled out to deny Letang. That took place prior to Crosby’s winner. Curiously, coach Alain Vigneault went with Stepan against Crosby in the defensive zone. He lost. The Pens had puck possession for the next 24 seconds until Crosby was able to deflect home a Letang shot off legally.
There was some second guessing. Why on a defensive draw would Vigneault have Stepan and Mats Zuccarello out together with McDonagh? At that point, it was looking like a shootout with neither team able to generate anything. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to go with a better faceoff guy such as Dominic Moore? Stepan did have a good night winning 11-of-18. Vigneault trusts him in that spot.
Maybe I would’ve gone with two defensemen. You don’t want to get beat there. Sullivan wisely took his timeout. It worked. Vigneault had the last change. But he decided to go with the defensively responsible Stepan and the always dangerous Zuccarello, who can counter. The end result wasn’t pretty.
If these teams do meet in the first round, such match-ups will be magnified. Hopefully, it will be a different result than the last three meetings.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Hagelin/Kessel, Pens (1-2-3, +3, 17 combined shot attempts-really dominant)
2nd Star-Eric Staal, Rangers (2 goals-12, 13, 4 SOG, 8 attempts-really looked good)
1st Star-Sidney Crosby, Pens (overtime winner on deflection with 30 seconds left-32nd goal)