Rangers hang on for big win over Penguins in crazy finish, Kreider gets 45th, Vatrano stays hot


The chaotic sequence at the end of an intense rivalry game summed it up perfectly. When the buzzer sounded as a Kris Letang desperation shot sailed wide, the Rangers had held off the Penguins’ late comeback attempt to earn a 3-2 win in Pittsburgh.

What a dramatic conclusion it was. If you love rivalry games that have significance, this was it. As much as they controlled large portions, the Rangers could never put away the pesky Pens.

The likely first round opponent got a Sidney Crosby power play goal and made their push. Having been shutdown by a stingy Ranger defense following the Crosby tally that made it a one-goal game with 9:23 left, the Penguins lifted Tristan Jarry after an icing with 2:32 remaining. What happened next was wild.

Even after a Crosby face-off win with a six-on-five attack, the Rangers got in the lanes and took everything away. The crazy part is they had at least four cracks at the empty net. Whether it was Kreider having a shot blocked or Barclay Goodrow flat out missing, they couldn’t score on an open net. Even without Ryan Strome, this was like watching Julien Gauthier fire blanks on a breakaway.

All the great chances to put it away and they somehow kept the Pens alive. Evgeni Malkin checked Mika Zibanejad from behind. He was milking the clock. The only missed call in what was a good officiated game. Had they given up a tying goal, Gerard Gallant would’ve fumed at the bench. Thankfully, it didn’t come down to that.

They can thank Igor Shesterkin for making a clutch save to stone Jake Guentzel on the doorstep. He made that one huge stop to deny Guentzel of forcing overtime. That close to regretting all the shots at the empty net they blew.

Shesterkin wasn’t called on for too many saves. There was a long stretch where he didn’t see any rubber. The Pittsburgh crowd groaned at their team for a lack of shots during a tentatively played second period. However, they picked it up by getting 11 on net in the third. Shesterkin stopped 10 of 11 on his way to 23 saves for his 32nd victory.

Despite totally outplaying their opponent in a lopsided first period, the Rangers couldn’t beat Jarry. Unlike Friday’s 5-1 win on home ice where they got three quick ones before five minutes elapsed, they had trouble with a much sharper Jarry. In fact, his brilliant play was the difference early. He made nine saves including absolute gems to rob Frank Vatrano and Zibanejad.

So effective was the forecheck that it gave the Pens fits. After an initial good start, they really struggled with the new Gallant lineup. Without Strome, Andrew Copp centered Artemi Panarin and Dryden Hunt. That line was excellent.

Filling in on the fourth line was ex-Penguin Ryan Reaves. He played with Jonny “Soda” Brodzinski and Tyler Motte. The latter had another strong game. It won’t be long before he gets one. He works so hard. What a steal for Chris Drury. A fourth round pick for a player Turk can use anywhere.

One Blueshirt that didn’t need an invitation to shoot the puck is Jacob Trouba. He never hesitates. He attempted at least four in a terrific first period. Jarry had to make some tricky saves on low Trouba shots. He also would have the benefit of a goalpost later in the period.

On the flip side, Shesterkin came up with his best save when he stayed right with Bryan Rust to deny his backhand deke. It was the result of a Vatrano turnover at the point. Rust broke in and instead of going shot, went for the deke and backhand that a too quick Shesterkin slid across and got.

Despite icing the puck repeatedly, it was the Pens who grabbed the lead. On a Letang pass across, Brian Dumoulin had his long shot redirected by Brian Boyle for his ninth with 5:36 remaining. Not much Shesterkin could’ve done. The sound strategy paid off. Boyle got position on Ryan Lindgren for the gritty goal. That’s who he’s always been.

Then off a Alexis Lafreniere forecheck behind the net, he moved the puck up top to K’Andre Miller. He then got it to Trouba for a one-timer that rang off the goalpost. He was the best Ranger in the period. Trouba really had an outstanding game. He was involved later on.

Late in the first, Motte would get another opportunity to score. But his shot from the right circle hit the outside of the net. He keeps getting chances due to his speed and awareness. Eventually, he’ll get rewarded. The attention to details is why I love this pickup. When Kevin Rooney returns in April, he’s not coming out of the lineup.

The score remained 1-0 Pens at the end of one. That was despite a 9-5 edge in shots for the guests. Even though they trailed, you had to come away feeling good about their effort. Braden Schneider did the intermission interview and indicated so. He also discussed what he has to do to stay in the lineup.

Also during intermission, Henrik Lundqvist couldn’t help but feel for Kevin Lankinen while John Giannone did the MSG 120. The Blackhawks blew a 4-0 lead and 5-4 lead to lose 6-5 in regulation to the Sabres. The game-winner banked off the back boards and then Lankinen, who broke his goal stick in frustration. Sean McCaffrey of bluecollarblueshirts.com loved what Lundqvist said.

I laughed at it as well. We know Lundqvist would’ve done the same. How can anyone forget some of his emotional outbursts after bad goals or missed goalie interference calls? Henrik had that fire. He showed it. He was one of us.

Last night was Garden Of Dreams Night. Nobody does it better than MSG when it comes to raising money for underprivileged kids. It was a rousing success. Lundqvist didn’t have to shave his head. A side bet with Steve Valiquette if they didn’t raise at least $100,000 for the worthy Garden charity. McCaffrey even put his money where his mouth was after winning on some of his wagers.

The Garden of Dreams is the best thing they do. It puts people who need help first. Something Lundqvist always did. No matter what kind of game he had, he is a selfless person. Congrats to all involved.

I also want to note that Eugene Melnyk passed away on Sunday. He was the owner of the Ottawa Senators. Melnyk was sick. Not much was known. It was handled privately. He was 62. Very sad news. They had a moment of silence before the Ottawa at Nashville game. Sending my thoughts to the Melnyk and Senators family.

Most of my game stories, I don’t usually have to make such important notes. But Melnyk was part of the NHL family. The hockey community mourns his loss. I sure hope the Senators can continue to survive. Their rebuild is starting to produce some good players. It won’t be long before they’re back to respectability.

Back to the game. If the first was largely controlled by the Rangers, the second period was a hard one to summarize. That’s because it consisted of two different parts.

The first half saw the Pens pay closer attention to defense by making it more of a deliberate pace. They also forechecked more. The odd part was the lack of shots. At times, they passed a few up due to Shesterkin. One of the obvious reasons is unscreened shots don’t work. They tried to get bodies to the net.

The other reason for so few shots was the improved Ranger defense. They are doing a better job coming back and taking away the inside. Particularly from Trouba and Miller, who each logged over 25 minutes. They were matched up a lot against the Crosby line. They were held in check at five-on-five.

It was becoming frustrating watching Jarry make the key stops. That included one on Panarin, who had a second straight very good game. By that, I mean overall. He didn’t make bad decisions with the puck and was active defensively even registering two hits. If he plays like that in May, that could bode well.

Lindgren took an interference minor by grabbing an attacking Guentzel. I didn’t like the penalty because he avoided a Guentzel hit to lose the puck. It was soft from a player who is better than that.

This put the Pens on the power play. But instead of getting momentum off it, they were turned away by the aggressive Rangers’ penalty kill. That included Copp and Barclay Goodrow. Zibanejad with Kreider along with the duo of Motte and Brodzinski. Motte’s hustle helped kill it off to keep the deficit at one.

Following that, a diving play from Schneider broke up a Pens’ two-on-one. It was a crucial defensive gem by the rookie. Especially with Pittsburgh looking to increase their lead. A huge sequence.

The second part of the period is when the game changed. Needing a good forecheck shift, the Rangers got it from the third line. Lafreniere and Filip Chytil applied pressure down low. They changed for the Panarin line, who continued to keep the Pens hemmed in.

Able to change for the Zibanejad line, Trouba kept the play alive with a great pinch. The puck came to Kreider, who was able to get it in front for Zibanejad. Drawing defenders, he quickly passed across for a Vatrano finish in the slot to tie the game at 13:32.

That’s three consecutive games with at least a goal for Vatrano. Since Gallant moved him onto the top line, he’s been tremendous. I should point out that Dad always was a fan of Frankie V. When that move was made, he loved it. Florida didn’t need him. But boy. Did the Rangers get scoring help. He’s up to five goals in only seven games.

Less than four minutes later, a big Trouba hit took a Pen off the puck in his end. That allowed Copp to move it up for Panarin, who gained the Pittsburgh zone and pulled up. With the Pens backing in, he found the trailing Schneider for his second goal to give the Rangers the lead with 2:56 remaining. An outstanding play by everyone involved.

So in what amounted to a feeling out process, the Blueshirts figured it out and led by a goal after two periods. But before the two sides skated off, the Pens again showed frustration. A Guentzel shot to Lindgren resulted in three roughing minors. He and Mike Matheson got matching roughs while Guentzel got the extra for starting it. That proved large.

Handed a power play for the first time to begin the third with a fresh sheet of ice, the Blueshirts made Guentzel pay for his selfish penalty. Sixty-six seconds into the man-advantage, Kreider was able to put home a wide Adam Fox carom past Jarry for his 45th goal. It also was his 23rd power play goal.

He is five shy of becoming the fourth Ranger to reach 50 goals in a single season. Kreider is one away from tying Jaromir Jagr for the most power play goals by a Ranger in a season. It’s been astonishing to watch him. Good for him. He is the real captain of this team. He’s certainly led by example.

Following the Kreider tally that put them up by two, some sustained pressure from the Pens resulted in Shesterkin denying Rickard Rakell from in tight. That was a big save.

On a quick transition, Kreider got the puck and let go of a good wrist shot from the circle. Jarry had trouble with it. He was able to keep it out. But it’s why I want Kreider to take shots from that exact spot. He passed up a wide open one prior by passing for Zibanejad, who tried a pass that didn’t work.

Goodrow lost position on Rust taking him down for an easy call. Again, the penalty kill took care of business. They were active throughout and broke up plays to get some big clears. The hard work featured both Copp and Motte out-hustling Pens to loose pucks. I can’t emphasize how huge those moves were.

Unfortunately, Copp got too aggressive on one offensive shift behind the Pens’ net. He got his stick into defenseman Chad Ruhwedel to trip him up. An ill advised offensive zone minor. Or Ryan Strome. If you don’t know by now, that’s sarcasm. Strome is day-to-day with a lower-body injury.

Somewhat predictably, the Pens took advantage of their third power play very quickly to make things interesting. Able to control the puck off a face-off, they finally got it set up. With the crowd urging them to shoot, Evgeni Malkin got the puck over for a Crosby point shot that beat a screened Shesterkin for his 25th.

Guentzel provided the screen. Letang and Malkin picked up assists on the Crosby power play goal that cut it to 3-2 with 9:23 left in the third. Crosby quietly has 70 points in 58 games. The goal gave him 98 career points versus the Rangers. He’s five away from 1,400.

After the goal, the Pens got momentum. With the fans encouraging them, a long Matheson shot hit the post. Shesterkin never saw it. That close to a tie game. But his best friend was there to give him some help. Ask Marc-Andre Fleury. He always thanks his goalposts. I bet he’s thrilled to be out of Chicago and in Minnesota.

The Rangers didn’t back up afterwards. They were solid in the neutral zone and standing up at their blue line. The attention to detail allowed them to attack the Pens and kill valuable time. It looked like they would wrap it up without a problem.

Then Trouba iced a puck with 2:32 remaining. At that point, Mike Sullivan wisely lifted Jarry for an extra attacker. What followed was chaos. Pittsburgh native Doc Emrick would’ve been proud.

A Kreider block of a Malkin shot with a minute and a half left looked like the end for the Pens. But Zibanejad hit the crossbar. Then Kreider had two attempts blocked by a diving Rakell. The crazy finish wasn’t over.

Following a Motte block of Letang, here came Goodrow ahead of everyone. But he couldn’t bury the shot from an angle. Instead, it hit the post. He then had another shot ring off the post for another miss with 42 seconds left.

It was absurd. Were they about to blow the game due to all these misses on the empty Pens’ net? They came close. Finally on another insane sequence, Guentzel got the point blank chance in front. But Shesterkin made the crucial save to stop his backhand with under 23 ticks to go.

Guentzel got one more shot from a tough angle that Shesterkin easily closed up with under five seconds remaining. The Pens had one last chance. Off a Jeff Carter face-off win, the came to Letang for a one-timer that missed the target.

Game over. What an ending. What a game. It really felt like three games played over 60 minutes. The Rangers deserved the two points in regulation and got it. They were better to take a second straight over their rivals. They now jump over Pittsburgh into second place in the division with 91 points.

As I told Sean when the insanity ended, I don’t care about that. Only getting the win. To think there’s 15 more games to go before the real season starts. They trail the Canes by five due to Carolina getting a point in an entertaining 4-3 overtime loss at the Lightning. Both have 15 left, but the Hurricanes hold the tiebreaker with two more regulation wins (38-36).

The two do meet twice down the stretch. Thanks to Alex Georgiev, they’ve split the first two in Raleigh. We’ll see what happens in NYC. I don’t know how it’ll play out. But these Blueshirts are improved. They can forecheck more and are tougher thanks to Drury’s additions. I feel better about their chances.

Next up are the Red Wings in your classic trap game. Similar to Buffalo on Sunday. As the players know, you can’t take the opponent for granted. If you do, then you get the ugly result they earned at the Devils. Detroit is coming off an 11-2 drubbing to the Pens. They’ll be ready.

My guess is Gallant will go with Georgiev. It’s a back-to-back situation and the perfect chance to get Shesterkin a night off. Keeping him fresh down the stretch is vital. No matter where they wind up, Igor is the key to the season. He can also rest other players if necessary. We’ll see.

This lasted longer than I anticipated. I hope whoever reads it appreciates what I put into it. It was a game worthy of a more detailed recap. Especially given that it was the Pens. They’ll see them one more time I over a week at MSG on April 7. Another big game.

Battle Of Hudson Three Stars 🌟 🤩 ✨️

3rd 🌟 Braden Schneider NYR scored 2nd NHL goal off smart read, 3 blocked shots, key defensive play, +1 in 12:01 in 19 even strength shifts

2nd 🌟 Chris Kreider NYR team best 45th goal plus 🍎, 4 SOG in 8 attempts, 3 hits, +1 in 17:47, 23 PPG lead league, one shy of Jagr for Rangers’ single season PPG record

1st 🌟 Jacob Trouba NYR 3 SOG in 6 attempts, 4 hits, takeaway, 2 blocked shots, +1 in 25:05 including 22:49 at even strength, a beast throughout

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 New York administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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