After two games, the Rangers and Penguins are even headed back to Madison Square Garden. Big performances helped lead the Rangers to a important 4-2 win over the Pens in Game 2 at CONSOL Energy Center. They earned the split to gain home ice when the best-of-seven first round series shifts to Broadway on Tuesday.
Indeed, a more focused Blueshirts responded well to coach Alain Vigneault’s message. There were many positives to take away from the two-goal victory over a Pens club who got back star Evgeni Malkin. Standing out was Henrik Lundqvist. Three days removed from an errant Marc Staal stick that caused him to exit Game 1 with a vision issue with his right eye, he showed no ill effects. The unflappable Swedish King delivered with 29 saves including some momentum turning ones that were the difference. None bigger than a huge stop, denying Bryan Rust on a breakaway after he came out of the penalty box.
To get the win, a few of Lundqvist’s buddies stepped up. J.T. Miller had a major impact setting up the first three goals. His tenacity on the fore-check was a key throughout. He wasn’t alone with Derick Brassard reemerging with a big game of his own. The number one center scored his first of the series and assisted on two others. Big Game Brass was much more involved after being shutdown in Game 1.
Mats Zuccarello and Chris Kreider also tallied in the win. Keith Yandle scored too. It was his goal off a Miller set up that tied the contest midway through which turned the tide. Brassard followed 18 seconds later giving the Rangers their first lead of the series. Another brilliant Miller feed set up Zuccarello for their third straight goal in a 4:14 span that stunned a loud Pens crowd. The three tallies all came during the second half of the second period.
Kreider added a huge insurance goal 39 seconds into the third. That was enough of a cushion with Lundqvist on his game. The only Pen who beat him was Phil Kessel with the former Maple Leaf doing so twice on almost identical power play goals off great feeds. He was the Pens’ most dangerous forward finishing with a game high eight shots and 12 attempts.
Sidney Crosby was neutralized by the effective Blueshirt tandem of Marc Sraal and Kevin Klein. Staal had a big bounce back game, logging a team high 25:21 in 37 shifts with a plus-one rating and two blocked shots. Most of it came matched up against Crosby. He saw over 11 minutes versus the Pens’ best player and got another seven against Malkin. Partner Klein had a strong game registering a game high eight hits with four blocks in 34 shifts (23:20) finishing plus-one. He also stood up for Staal after Chris Kunitz slashed him, challenging Kunitz to a fight. Unfortunately, the refs got in the way. They didn’t have the best of days.
There was no scoring in the first period. The Pens held a slight edge in shots leading 10-7. They tested Lundqvist early and he responded in orderly fashion. Most of it was played at even strength. That’s where the Rangers want to be. They have been the better team five-on-five so far controlling possession. It’s not advisable to take penalties. Twice, the more skilled Pens burned them on terrific set ups for Kessel in front. Meanwhile, the Rangers were an all too predictable 0-for-3 on the man-advantage.
This one had more edge to it. Zuccarello and Hornqvist exchanged roughs with two seconds left in the first. There also were plenty of fouls that went undetected by the officials. It felt more like a playoff game between two close rivals than Game 1. Of course, the Pens having Malkin back increased the battle level. He was his usual ornery self.
For a second straight game, Pittsburgh got on the board first. A Zuccarello hooking minor resulted in the first of Kessel’s two power play goals. It nearly didn’t happen. The Rangers went for it shorthanded and got burned. After Eric Staal went around Kris Letang, a diving Hornqvist made a great back check to deny Staal with a pinching Dan Boyle up. With two Ranger penalty killers trapped, the Pens executed a four-on-two to perfection. Nick Bonino passed for Trevor Daley, who made a wonderful drop for an easy Kessel one-timer past an out of position Lundqvist at 3:21.
With the crowd into it, the Pens looked for that second goal. But Lundqvist stood tall in the first half of the second to give his teammates a chance. For a while, it was frustrating to watch them make third string starter Jeff Zatkoff look great. Up till that point, he made some good saves with his best denying Derek Stepan on a breakaway early to loud cheers from the home crowd. But it would all change rather quickly on some Pens’ breakdowns.
On an offensive draw won by Brassard, Miller made a smart read with his pass across taking a favorable bounce right to a pinching Yandle, who was able to bury his first to tie the score at 12:38. No Pen took Yandle which allowed the skilled offensive defenseman enough time to get off a good shot and beat Zatkoff. The next goal would be critical. It wasn’t without controversy.
After Olli Maatta fell down, Miller led Brassard into the Pittsburgh zone. He made a nice move cutting in on Zatkoff and beating him far side for a 2-1 lead at 12:56. But before they could drop the puck at center ice, NBC’s cameras seemed to indicate that Brassard might have been offside prior to the goal. Pens coach Mike Sullivan challenged. It was very close. The determining factor was whether Brassard had full control of the puck as he crossed the line. His skate also may have been up in the air. Even with the new technology of a camera at the blue line, it was inconclusive. Brassard’s goal was upheld.
With the Rangers nursing a one-goal lead, another key point came. Rust was in the penalty box for interfering with Marc Staal. After they failed to connect on the power play, Crosby made a perfect stretch pass for Rust out of the box, sending him on a breakaway. An aggressive Lundqvist made a huge glove save to deny Rust with 4:26 left. It wasn’t clean but Lundqvist got enough of it to keep play going. That was the biggest moment of the game.
Over a minute later, it was Miller Time again. This time, off a good cycle, he drew three Pens and threaded the needle across for a sweet Zuccarello finish, making it a 3-1 lead with 3:08 left in the stanza. Again, it was a blown coverage by the Pens with Daley leaving Zuccarello wide open. Similar to the Rangers in Game 1, they were careless and paid the price.
Rather than sitting back, the Rangers kept attacking at the start of the third. It netted positive results with Kreider scoring his first from Brassard 39 seconds in for a three-goal cushion. A Kreider fore-check forced a Pens turnover. A Daley giveaway led directly to him firing a quick wrist shot that deflected off Daley past Zatkoff. The game wasn’t over.
Even with Crosby taking an ill advised slashing minor that put his team shorthanded, Kreider took an unnecessary goalie interference penalty seven seconds later to negate a power play. Yandle then picked the wrong time for a bad penalty cross checking Malkin down. That handed the Pens a four-on-three advantage. It didn’t take long for them to cash in. Eric Staal lost a draw to Bonino leading to some more great passing between Malkin and Bonino, setting up another easy Kessel finish in front that cut the deficit to two with 14:18 to go.
With the Pens trailing by two, somehow refs Marc Joannette and Steve Kozari missed a hit from behind by Ben Lovejoy on Stepan. Seeing it live, I felt it was a clear boarding penalty that could’ve been a major. Instead, play continued. A visibly shaken Stepan went to the locker room. He missed most of the period but miraculously returned with a couple of minutes left. It wasn’t the only missed call. Both sides had cases. Overall, the standard of officiating has been poor in every series I’ve seen. Consistently inconsistent.
As only the Rangers could do, they missed a chance to make life easier on themselves. Of all people, Zuccarello missed an empty net. It led to Lundqvist making a couple of more clutch stops, including denying Hornqvist point blank with 37 seconds remaining. Watching this team, it’s never easy. But they got the job done. Now, it’s a best-of-five with the next two at MSG.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Phil Kessel, Pens (2 goals-1, 2 both PPG’s, 8 SOG, 15 attempts actually with 3 misses)
2nd Star-Derick Brassard, NYR (goal-1st of postseason, 2 assists, 7 hits, +4 in 25 shifts-17:59)
1st Star-J.T. Miller, NYR (3 primary assists, 3 hits, +3 in 22 shifts-15:47)
Notes: In one of the biggest differences, the Rangers finished every check. They were the more physical team registering 57 hits compared to the Pens’ 25. Only three skaters didn’t record a hit with Dylan McIlrath one of the three. He only played 9:07 taking 17 shifts. The trio of Klein (8), Brassard (7) and Tanner Glass (7) combined for 22 hits. Kreider and Zuccarello each had six. They were physically engaged. … The Pens blocked 18 shots while the Rangers had 17. Klein led all skaters with four. Brian Dumoulin had three for the Pens. … Face-offs favored the Pens, who went 39-and-31. Bonino was their best going 14-and-8 while Crosby went 14-and-10. No Blueshirt was over .500. E. Staal (7-and-8) and Dominic Moore (5-and-6) were the closest. … Pens out-attempted the Rangers 59-50. But unlike the first game, the Rangers didn’t miss the net only doing so five times.