This one was all about character, determination and perseverance as well as resiliency. Facing the defending champion Penguins for the first time since getting dumped out in five games during the first round, these new batch of Rangers showed their mettle in a come from behind 5-2 win at PPG Paints Arena (why is it called that?).
Playing for a second night in a row, it took the Rangers some time to get back in it. Following a disjointed first period that saw them fall behind 2-0 on the first two NHL goals from newest Pen Jake Guentzel, the Blueshirts used a strong second period outscoring Pittsburgh 3-0 to turn it around.
Among the highlights were goals from Rick Nash (first in six), Michael Grabner (tied for league lead with 12 goals) and a backbreaking shorthanded goal from J.T. Miller. In particular, Miller’s goal hurt the Pens, who were put on a power play on a dubious interference call on Brady Skjei. It came with 49 seconds left on kind of a weird play with Kevin Hayes centering the puck off Evgeni Malkin and Miller. I couldn’t even tell how it went in.
This was the kind of bounce back performance the Rangers needed following Sunday’s disappointment in a shootout loss to the Panthers. Plus that forgettable loss at Columbus Friday. Especially in what was the first game minus Mika Zibanejad, who will be out six to eight weeks with a fractured left fibula.
Alain Vigneault shifted Brandon Pirri to center a third line with Miller and Jimmy Vesey. Oscar Lindberg worked with Josh Jooris and Jesper Fast on the fourth line. Hayes centered Chris Kreider and Mats Zuccarello and Derek Stepan anchored Rick Nash and Grabner. The line switches worked. Full credit to the coach who as promised, played everyone.
It didn’t start off well with Guentzel catching Raanta asleep at his near post to score on his first NHL shift for a 1-0 Pens lead 62 seconds in. Phil Kessel, who’s been more playmaker than finisher, picked up the first of two assists. He leads the Pens with 14 helpers. Trevor Daley added a secondary helper.
Even though they fell behind early, the Rangers played the Penguins on even terms. In a speed oriented game, the teams exchanged chances. Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp stopping all 12 shots in the first period. A turnover by Vesey inside the Pittsburgh blue line led directly to a three-on-two odd man rush. On it, Kessel wisely shot low for a rebound with Malkin denied before Guentzel buried the second rebound for goal number two at 13:12.
If there was a turning point, it came a few minutes later. All period, the teams were at each other’s throats. There were battles behind the play and plenty of talking. On one shift, Malkin was taken down by Marc Staal. Near the end of his shift, he was then slashed by Nick Holden before Dan Girardi intercepted him and did similar with the two exchanging whacks. Both went for matching minors to cause a four-on-four with 2:48 left. At the time, I liked it because it showed that the Rangers weren’t going down without a fight. It sent a message. Malkin was a non-factor the rest of the game.
The officiating wasn’t great. You can make the argument they missed one on Staal for his chop on Malkin. But they also missed one on Scott Wilson for boarding. The calls they did make annoyed both teams. Considering what they let go, it was understandable. Before the start of the second, they warned both benches. Prior to the opening draw, Sidney Crosby and Stepan talked trash.
It was that kind of competitive game between two rivals who know each other well. Having met in the playoffs the past three years, it made the game more interesting. Speaking of missed calls, Nash got away with one before scoring his seventh unassisted to cut the deficit to 2-1 at 4:51. He interfered with a Pen but there was no call. He then fired one home to get his team back in it.
The whole period was wild and crazy. With each team playing a fast skating up tempo, there were plenty of rushes and counter attacks. One such play almost resulted in disaster when Crosby came away with a clean strip and broke in two-on-one. But his wicked shot hit the far goalpost keeping it a one-goal contest. A few minutes later, Crosby would go into the box for interference behind the play. Naturally, he and coach Mike Sullivan protested. But it was a valid call.
Even though they didn’t score on the power play, the Rangers generated enough momentum off it to eventually tie the game. In particular, Hayes had some close calls forcing Fleury into a couple of difficult saves. He faced a lot of shots in the second with the Rangers firing 15 on net to the Pens’ nine.
It was actually a mistake by Fleury that led directly to Grabner’s game-tying goal. He got caught in between misplaying a puck in the corner. Ryan McDonagh hustled to the loose puck and sent a nice backhand pass in the slot for an open Grabner, who had Fleury out of position for a sweet backhand finish at 14:23. Astonishingly, Grabner is now tied with Crosby and Winnipeg rookie Patrik Laine for first in goals with a cool dozen. Whatever role Vigneault puts him in, he excels. Amazing.
The game nearly turned again when Skjei was nabbed for a phantom interference. The replay clearly showed two players battling for a loose puck. No wonder Skjei had some words for refs Brad Watson and Tom Kowal. But instead of making the most of it, the Pens made a crucial mistake inside the Ranger blue line. Miller forced a turnover causing a two-on-two rush. With Hayes skating down the right side, he threw the puck in front and got a nice bounce with it first deflecting off a back checking Malkin and then off Miller for his first NHL shorthanded goal at 19:11.
Just like that, the Rangers led after two periods. They earned it. The third period was more defensive by design. They didn’t give the Pens much. Despite Sullivan double shifting Crosby with Matt Cullen and Bryan Rust, the Rangers were more engaged physically and did a better job protecting the net. Raanta also made a couple of nice stops en route to 29 saves.
The Rangers held the Penguins to eight shots. They also didn’t take any silly penalties like they had last night. They stayed disciplined and stuck together. When McDonagh stole the puck at the Pittsburgh blue line and waited patiently before centering off Hayes for his ninth to make it 4-2 with 7:14 left, there was no looking back. Stepan added an excuse me empty netter with 1:23 remaining.
A great response by all 18 skaters and the goalie. Now comes the rematch at MSG on Turkey Eve. It promises to be good.
BONY 3 Stars:
3rd Star-Jake Guentzel, Pens (2 goals in first NHL game, nearly a hat trick, 5 shots, 6 attempts, 4 hits, +1 in 20 shifts-15:38)
2nd Star-Kevin Hayes, NYR (goal-9th, assist-9rh to tie Miller for team lead with 18 points, 6 shots, +2 in 25 shifts-17:28)
1st Star-Ryan McDonagh, NYR (2 assists-12, 13, 4 shots, 2 blocked shots, +5 in 28 shifts-22:54 against the best player in the world)
Notes: Both Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist did not play for the Pens. Kunitz was put on IR today allowing Guentzel to be recalled and make a memorable NHL debut with two goals. Hornqvist remains out with a concussion. … McDonagh and Girardi went a combined plus-nine. … Crosby finished minus-four with two shots and a minor penalty. … Malkin had an assist with two shots, six attempts and a minus-one. … Kessel tallied two assists giving him 14 which lead the Pens. … Four Blueshirts had two point nights including Hayes (1-1-2), McDonagh (2 assists), Grabner (1-1-2) and Nash (1-1-2). … Lindberg took 16 shifts (10:35) all at even strength with two shots, four attempts with two hits. … Faceoffs were in favor of the Rangers 28-26 thanks to good nights from Stepan (9-and-6), Hayes (9-and-7) and Pirri (8-and-7). Nick Bonino went 5-for-8 for the Pens while Crosby lost 13-of-23. … Shot attempts were close with the Pens holding a slight edge 54-50 despite getting outshot 36-31.
… The game was physical with the Rangers finishing with 35 hits to the Pens’ 25. Kevin Klein led the way with five and Miller had four. Guentzel and Wilson each had four. Only three NYR skaters didn’t register a hit. … It’s the Penguins (11-5-3) and Rangers (14-5-1) from The Garden at 7 PM Wednesday on MSG. Interestingly, NBC Sports Network chose the Flyers and Lightning for Rivalry Night over Penguins/Rangers. What would you expect from a confused network.