I’ll be honest. When I made the drive with Justin and Michael to The Garden, we weren’t expecting much. The Pens are one of the league’s best teams. The first repeat winners since the Red Wings (’97 and ’98) are all world. Crosby. Malkin. Kessel. Letang. Add in old Ranger playoff hero Derick Brassard and they are scary.
So you had to figure it would be a tough night for these bunch of young Blueshirts. But this wasn’t the nightmare at Tampa. It was something different than expected. That’s why they play the games. To witness the kind of heart exhibited by the new Rangers in a invigorating third period that made MSG rock like it hasn’t all season was something else.
They rallied twice in the third from 2-0 and 3-2 deficits to force overtime. In a wild three-on-three, the good guys prevailed thanks to Mika Zibanejad, who was able to beat Pittsburgh backup Casey DeSmith to the glove short side for a hard fought come from behind 4-3 OT win over the Pens in a emotionally charged atmosphere.
It felt like old times. Though it took a while for things to heat up following a quiet first period thanks to rookie Rangers backup Alexandar Georgiev, the game really moved the rest of the way. Two Penguin goals from Bryan Rust and Riley Sheahan 55 seconds apart early in the second got the Pens contingent going. I missed both but knew they scored while I was catching up with friends. You can always tell by the fan reaction. I later saw both goals. Neither of which Gorgy was to blame. Brassard set up Rust for a nice wrist shot and Kris Letang’s one-timer was neatly redirected in by Sheahan.
Following those quick tallies, the Rangers picked it up. They used their speed and skating to get in and attack the Pens defense. They did a lot of good work on the forecheck pinning them in to create glorious opportunities. But they had no puck luck around DeSmith’s cage. Zibanejad and Jimmy Vesey had some near misses along with a few other Ranger skaters. It was almost as if they were teasing us.
For the fans who are all in on tanking, it’s understandable why. Getting as high a pick as possible in this June’s NHL Draft is important for the rebuild. However, there’s something to be said for seeing our boys compete against the highest level of competition. It’s the Penguins. A old Patrick Division rival who diehards hate. We may respect them but to beat them in the fashion they did was remarkable. It shows how much the 18 skaters and goalies care.
Make no mistake. Georgiev gave his team a chance to come back. Without the poised 22-year old gem who finished with 37 saves including some huge ones with none bigger than the odd penalty shot Evgeni Malkin had with 10.7 seconds left in regulation, there is no comeback. He was terrific in winning his third straight game. Georgiev also had a little luck with Phil Kessel hitting the near goalpost to keep it a two-goal deficit headed to the third.
For so long, the Rangers got great chance after great chance taking over in the third. But they were unable to capitalize after killing the remainder of a Pittsburgh power play. The real positive was how cohesive the lines continued to look, applying pressure until they got a penalty called that turned the tide.
Momentum is a strange thing in hockey. The Pens had opportunity to increase their lead. But Georgiev wouldn’t allow it. He plays a very relaxed game in net oozing confidence. He was really sharp on a couple of tough deflections which the Pens are known for. That was what impressed me. Those aren’t easy. He saw the plays and aggressively challenged gloving them out of harm’s way.
On a power play, the Blueshirts finally got a break. Off a good pass from Neal Pionk, Pavel Buchnevich had his good low one-timer kick out off DeSmith right to Chris Kreider. Parked directly in front, he was able to push the puck just by DeSmith for number 13 at 8:42. That goal really lifted the team and the building.
It may not have been a full house. But you wouldn’t know it by the noise the fans made. It was the first time in a long time the new Garden sounded like the old place before the renovation. “Let’s Go Rangers” chants echoed throughout the arena and weren’t distant. The fans including us got into it.
It was not long following Kreider’s power play goal that Jesper Fast had a unreal chance in front. Zibanejad made a brilliant move going around a Pen and making a perfect backhand feed across for a wide open Fast in front. He had what looked like the tying goal only to be robbed blind by a lightning quick glove of DeSmith.
Not long after, Fast got just due on a sustained attack. Off a Marc Staal shot, he deflected one home off his backhand for the tying goal at 14:28. It was his 11th from Staal and Kreider. A splendid shift of hard work that was rewarded. Fast is the kind of player who just goes out and does his job no matter who he plays with. His energy and work ethic has rubbed off on Zibanejad, who’s playing his best hockey.
But with the crowd still buzzing, old friend Carl Hagelin was able to sneak a wraparound off Georgiev’s goal stick and in for his ninth at 15:41. It looked like that would be the crusher in another loss.
Instead, a determined bunch of scrappy Blueshirts had other ideas. Jimmy Vesey drew a tripping penalty in the offensive zone. What transpired was probably the prettiest goal of the year for the Rangers. Off a Pionk break out, Kreider took a feed and blew by Pens defenders and then turned Kris Letang into a traffic cone before centering for a cutting Zibanejad, who buried his 21st home on the power play (11th PPG) with 3:17 left in regulation. Kreider leaped over Zibanejad behind the net in celebration.
The crowd went crazy. It may have been a meaningless game compared to other bigger ones versus the Pens in past Springs. None of that mattered. It was the hated rival who seems to be favored at times by the stripes and NBC.
So when Georgiev was called for “intentionally” forcing the net off its moorings with less than 11 seconds left, the refs rewarded Pittsburgh with a penalty shot. A perplexing call given the circumstances. The rule states that if a goalie is thought to knock the net off intentionally in the final two minutes, the refs can give a penalty shot. It’s their discretion. Something Georgiev alluded to after the win.
Not surprisingly, the Pens chose Malkin to take it. A Hart candidate who’s second in the league in scoring trailing only fellow Russian Nikita Kucherov, the lanky and dangerous center made his move on Georgiev. But he stayed patient forcing Malkin to go wide and run out of real estate. That save was awesome.
In the three-on-three, Georgiev stoned Sidney Crosby on a backhand and then for good measure made another point blank save. A great game for such a unproven young netminder who is getting better.
Pionk made a great defensive play in his own end to help start the transition that lead to the game-winner. Eventually, he got the puck to Kreider, who was flying all night. He was able to find Zibanejad open in the slot. His shot eluded DeSmith sending a pumped up crowd into a frenzy and Pens fans to the exits.
It truly was special. Sure. They’re not making the playoffs. But any time you can go toe to toe with the Pens and fight hard for a emotional comeback win, it’s great. This is the kind of win these young kids can build off of.
The most enjoyable game of the year.
Notes: Kreider finished with a goal and three assists for a career high four points. He is flying at the lower weight. He should stay at it. Looks totally different. … Neal Pionk recorded a career high three assists. … With two goals and a helper, Zibanejad reached 100 NHL goals. When asked if he remembered his first, he smiled and said it was at home in Ottawa against Montreal. Here, he spoke a little more about the win: