Blueshirts blitz Pens early in bounce back win, Kreider gets numbers 43 and 44, Zibanejad goes over 500 points

Mika Zibanejad skates off Garden ice after deservedly being named the game’s First Star. His three assists helped him eclipse 500 career points as the Rangers breezed past the Penguins 5-1. AP Photo by Derek Felix courtesy MSG Network and New York Rangers

From the drop of the puck, they were ready to go. Coming off a bad 7-4 loss at the Devils, the Rangers bounced back in a big way by blitzing past the Penguins 5-1 at MSG. The domination moved them within a point of second place in the Metropolitan Division.

Following games on Sunday, the two old Patrick Division rivals will do battle again next Tuesday in Pittsburgh. It’ll be another big game between the potential first round foes. The win in regulation allowed the Blueshirts to even the season series with two games remaining. The final two are on March 27 in the Steel City and April 7 on Broadway.

Entering play, the Pens held a three-point lead for second. The Blueshirts knew the importance of tonight’s game. After one of their worst performances, coach Gerard Gallant made some lineup changes that paid off.

Frank Vatrano moved up with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider while Andrew Copp played with Ryan Strome and Artemi Panarin. Alexis Lafreniere moved back to his natural position of left wing to flank Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. Meanwhile, Gallant sat Ryan Reaves out. Jonny Brodzinski was reinserted and played on the checking line with Tyler Motte and Dryden Hunt.

That’s not all. After an inauspicious debut, veteran defenseman Justin Braun was scratched in favor of rookie Braden Schneider. He returned to the lineup to team with Patrik Nemeth on the third pair. Schneider responded with a better game following a tough weekend.

It all worked for Gallant, who seems to push the right buttons often this season. If he didn’t have a particularly good game in Newark, the veteran coach got his team to respond with a complete effort. In fact, it was one of their best of the year.

In fact, the start was dream like. Facing the Pens who were without Evgeni Malkin due to a mystery illness, they jumped all over them. It began when Chytil got the puck over for Lafreniere who was able to slip a backhand between Tristan Jarry’s pads for a quick 1-0 lead at 2:07. All three players got a point including Goodrow, who started the play.

Continuing to carry the play, they struck again 1:51 later. This time, Zibanejad was able to find Kreider ahead of the play for a breakaway. He beat Jarry with a snapshot for his 43rd for a two-goal lead at 3:58. The assist from Zibanejad gave him career point 500. He and the top line weren’t done.

On the next shift, some splendid passing between Kreider and Zibanejad allowed a wide open Vatrano to tap in his 12th. The goal came just 18 seconds later, giving the Rangers three goals in 4:16. It’s the fastest start to a game in 37 years.

With his team disorganized, Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan took his timeout to settle them down. Even though they didn’t give up anymore goals in the first period, it continued to be controlled by the Rangers.

They could’ve had more after Sidney Crosby held Kreider. But they were unable to. If only Chytil had taken the shot instead of passing on the improved second unit. He was wide open.

The only mistake during an otherwise dominant period was a Hunt hi-sticking double minor on Marcus Pettersson with 4:10 left. Given their first two power plays of the game, it was a golden opportunity for the Pens to get back in it.

Following a good Igor Shesterkin left pad save on the set play that saw Kris Letang pass down low for the Crosby deflection, the Rangers only allowed one more Pens’ shot on the four-minute power play. It was the aggressive play of the penalty killers that dominated the Pittsburgh man-advantage minus Malkin.

Even Strome was used by Gallant to good effect. He made a good clear with a lift of the puck that gave Motte an opportunity. He hasn’t played penalty kill much, but did under former coach David Quinn. He provided a spark down a man. So did Motte, who has been as advertised. A speedy forward who outworks opponents and finishes checks. Fans are taking notice.

The Pens thought they had a goal. But after a video review in which the refs blew the whistle, they upheld the call on the ice. Shesterkin was pushed in anyway. So, the correct ruling on no goal was made.

The second period saw the Pens try to get back in it. They finally got a few scoring chances. But Shesterkin was strong. He wasn’t about to have consecutive bad games. He was chased from the net after the Devils’ five goal second period barrage. He’s unflappable. That showed even in what turned into a blowout win for the Rangers.

One thing about Shesterkin is he doesn’t shy away from coming out to play the puck. We’ve seen him take shots at empty nets even narrowly missing scoring. Sometimes, his over aggressiveness can get him in trouble. He accidentally threw a puck out for a delay of game minor.

Undeterred, Shesterkin then twice made perfect clears. One led to a shorthanded chance. With the fans chanting, “Ig-or, Ig-or!”, here came Zibanejad and Kreider. Unlike the other night, Zibanejad passed across and Kreider shot. Instant success. His third shorthanded goal continued his special season.

After Kreider’s 44th that pulled him within six of joining the Rangers 50-Goal Club of Vic Hadfield, Adam Graves and Jaromir Jagr, the Pens made a goalie change lifting Jarry for Casey DeSmith. It didn’t last long. He made a great save to deny another glorious Ranger chance. But then was run into by his own player. DeSmith left the game after making three saves in 4:19.

Jarry returned to the Pittsburgh net for the remainder of the game. To his credit, he was better after coming back. Had he not been, the Rangers could’ve led by six or seven. That’s how lopsided it was. It was total domination. Even better, it came at five-on-five. They scored four of five at even strength with the other goal coming shorthanded.

A welcome change from what we’ve seen. When the second period concluded, the Pens acted like babies. Bryan Rust cross-checked K’Andre Miller after the buzzer. This almost led to a fracas. The teams came together. Words were exchanged including from Crosby, who was visibly frustrated.

Cooler heads prevailed in the third. Nothing else materialized. Outside of Nemeth roughing up Crosby that led to the only Pens’ goal coming from Kasperi Kapanen on a power play that made it 4-1, that’s as close as it got.

The Blueshirts got a little sloppy late. They allowed Jeff Carter to get in on Shesterkin for a breakaway. But he calmly shut it down to more Igor chants. He finished with 20 saves on 21 shots on a light night to improve to 31-9-3.

On another amazing night where Jersey City celebrated Saint Peter’s historic win over Purdue to make the Elite Eight in the men’s NCAA Division I College Basketball Tournament, another new Blueshirt made his presence known.

With under three minutes to go, Andrew Copp got his first as a Ranger when he took a good Panarin feed and beat Jarry with a one-timer from in close for the exclamation point. The goal came with 2:13 left in regulation. Both Panarin and Strome assisted. A perfect way to end a great game by the Blueshirts.

They were much sharper than Tuesday. Gallant though his team was mentally tired in the Jersey disappointment. He was right. I felt the two off days would benefit them. Getting some extra preparation in along with rest proved beneficial.

Now, they’ll have Saturday off before returning to MSG to host the improved Sabres. Although they lost to the Caps in a shootout, they’re playing much better. They’ve won four of five.

Tage Thompson and Jeff Skinner are scoring. Rasmus Dahlin is playing like a former top pick. The Rangers can’t overlook them. If they do, see Tuesday in Newark for reference.

That’s gonna do it for now. Enjoy the weekend.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Frank Vatrano NYR goal (12th), 3 SOG, +1 in 13:29

2nd 🌟 Mika Zibanejad NYR 3 assists including career point number 500, 3 SOG, +3 in 16:31

1st 🌟 Chris Kreider NYR 2 goals (43rd, 44th) including SHG, plus assist, 4 SOG, +3 in 14:48, 44-17-61

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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