Rangers handle the Penguins minus Crosby, Shesterkin gets fourth shutout, total team effort to put distance, Pens have meltdown at the end

If ever there was a message sent, it was in tonight’s game. Facing a potential first round opponent for the fourth and final time over a month, the Rangers handled the Penguins 3-0 at The Garden.

The win allowed them to take the final three meetings and win the season series. Let’s chalk that up as bookkeeping. While it’s nice to have the mental edge over an old rival, we have to keep proper perspective.

Based on the ridiculous actions of the Pens at the end of the game, they tried to send a message that this isn’t over. Maybe not. With 10 games left for each team, the Rangers could see the Pengwhines again in May.

I don’t normally refer to a team by such a name. But it sure applies after Thursday night. Let’s just say I’m a little fed up with their antics following the second period and the mind numbing conclusion tonight.

They want to jump our best goalscorer at the buzzer. It comes off weak. It was nice to see Chris Kreider get up and purposely point with two fingers to the scoreboard. The perfect response to the frustrated Pens’ madness.

I guess losing to our team has gotten to them. They did skate without Sidney Crosby (illness) and defenseman John Marino. Obviously, Crosby is a lot more important to them. The franchise captain didn’t take warm-ups after missing the morning skate. It was obvious he wouldn’t play.

Should no Crosby take away from what the Rangers did? No. You go out and play the game. They did exactly what they had to do. Igor Shesterkin stopped all 30 Pens’ shots to earn his fourth shutout of the season. He didn’t have to stand on his head. It was a total T-E-A-M effort.

The way they defended the net front for Shesterkin made it much easier on him. I counted four big saves during the game. One that was seen on ESPN Plus. I put it on my tablet so I could actually see the action better. It still isn’t the same experience as watching it on the tube. Don’t tell the NHL or MLB. That’s all I’ll say on streaming.

When I say it was a team effort, you know that our side played well. They frustrated the Pens, who had trouble getting anything on the inside. Shesterkin was able to see the shots. He stopped them and also silenced reporters who were ready to write a book on his demise. The affable Russian Czar at least was honest in the postgame about his recent play.

Here’s the thing. At one point, he had a ridiculous .940 save percentage. Not even Dominik Hasek ever did it during his legendary Hall Of Fame career. The closest he came was .937 in ’98-99 en route to a fifth Vezina and third place finish for the Hart. A trophy he won twice. Hasek is still the best goalie I’ve ever seen. Don’t forget he won all six Vezinas and both Harts on the Sabres.

The point is in today’s more high scoring, speed oriented offensive game, it’s much harder for a goalie to put up such gaudy numbers. Even following his slide, Shesterkin still has a .935 save percentage and 2.10 goals-against-average (GAA). His record is up to 33-10-4. Remarkable stuff from the unflappable 26-year old fourth round gem the Rangers stole in the 2014 NHL Draft.

By giving him Tuesday off in favor of Alex Georgiev, who turned in a good game, Gerard Gallant made a wise decision. He’s keeping Shesterkin fresh down the stretch. The right move regardless of who they wind up drawing in the first round. Shesterkin paid back Turk by denying bids by Jake Guentzel, Evan Rodriguez and Jeff Carter.

There’s still a chance at first place in the Metropolitan Division. The Hurricanes trailed 3-1 against the improved Sabres before rallying back with four straight to pull out a 5-3 home win. That kept them two up on the Blueshirts. Carolina has an extra game left and hold the first tiebreaker with 40 regulation wins to the Rangers’ 38. It could come down to the two games they play at MSG on April 12 and 26. The latter likely more meaningful.

While all of this is nice, let’s remember that no matter where they wind up, there’s still a job to do next month. It’s self-explanatory. Play their game and stick to the system. One that took a while for them to execute under Gallant. There’s structure. If they execute it, then these New York Rangers can beat anyone.

As a friendly reminder to fans and readers of the blog, it won’t be easy. Playoff hockey usually isn’t. So, whether it’s the Penguins, Lightning or even the Bruins, expect it to be tough. That’s why the Pens had a meltdown and acted like babies at the conclusion of Thursday’s game. They were completely frustrated. That’s good.

You want potential opponents to show that emotion. That means you’re hard to play against. In the four regular season meetings, the Rangers not only took the final three. They only allowed four goals. Even better, Shesterkin was in for all four going 3-1-0 with a 1.01 GAA and .960 save percentage. He allowed four goals on 101 shots in 238 minutes.

If you think about it, the only Pens’ win came in controversial fashion on a phantom call that led to a Evgeni Malkin power play goal back in Pittsburgh during the first meeting on ABC. A playoff style game that deserved overtime. If you don’t think he’s in their heads, all you had to do was observe their extra passes in the third period to notice it.

When it comes to sports, 90 percent of it is mental. We’ve seen hot goalies get into an opponent’s mind before. Henrik Lundqvist versus the Capitals. Mike Richter vs the Devils. Tim Thomas vs the Canucks. You can include Hasek, Martin Brodeur and Patrick Roy. The play of the goalie can affect shooters.

In terms of potential first round opponents, don’t discount Tristan Jarry or the top goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy. He is that until proven otherwise. In my opinion, Vasilevskiy is the best goalie of this era. We’ve also seen unknowns get hot before. The playoffs are unpredictable.

As far as Thursday night goes, the Rangers hosted the Penguins at the World’s Most Vaccinated Arena. Well, it probably still is despite the changes. If only that included loyal workers who lost their jobs. The emergency medical workers, policemen, firefighters, teachers, etc.

Enough about that. Interestingly, the ESPN game actually started earlier than expected. Usually, they drop the puck around 7:08 PM. This was faster. When I looked at my tablet, it was 7:06. It was a welcome surprise compared to the nauseating delays on TNT.

If only we can get those kind of starts once the postseason starts up. Without Crosby, the Pens had Malkin between Guentzel and Bryan Rust. Here’s how they lined up:

One Penguin made their NHL debut. That was forward Filip Hallander. ESPN highlighted the rookie taking his pregame lap before teammates joined him. That’s always cool to see. One hockey tradition I love.

The first period was a feeling out process. It was eerily similar to the first match-up last month. You had both aces in net doing their thing. As expected, it was a tight checking, playoff style kind of period. That is how it was played.

My one takeaway is that the Pens aren’t the same team without Crosby. That was noticeable throughout. What makes him so great is he’s still a top five player. As good as Malkin, Kris Letang, Guentzel and Rust are, he drives it. What’s gonna happen when Crosby hangs it up one day? He’s still got good years left. But you get the point.

Where as the Pens still are so reliant on their 34-year old meal ticket, the Rangers boast stars in their prime. Artemi Panarin scored a gorgeous goal for his 20th in the deciding second. He’s been on a roll. Kreider factored in along with Mika Zibanejad on the game’s first goal scored by key pickup Frank Vatrano. Adam Fox had an impact without recording a point.

This is all positive stuff. Having players in their prime including Shesterkin can make a big difference. That’s without worrying what Alexis Lafreniere will become or Braden Schneider, who is here to stay. Since adding Vatrano, Andrew Copp and Tyler Motte and Justin Braun, there’s a lot to like about this core. One that is better with Ryan Strome back on the second line.

Whatever they decide to do with Kaapo Kakko, I don’t care. I am not even sure where he fits. Maybe Gallant will try him with Lafreniere and Filip Chytil. But I really like the chemistry they have with Barclay Goodrow. A glue guy who really got Malkin off his game near the end.

We’ll see how bad the Motte injury is. He took a tough hit from Anthony Angello late in the third period. The hit came from the side and didn’t make any head contact. It was clean. Unfortunately, Motte was caught in a prone position and left the game. Gallant had no update. Let’s hope he is only out short-term. Motte has become a key penalty killer and active checker who fits in seamlessly.

I’ll admit even having the game on the tablet, it isn’t easy to follow. Part of that is due to it being a smaller screen. While a very evenly played first period was going on, I also had an eye on an excellent game won by Denver over Michigan at the Frozen Four. It went to overtime. Carter Savoie won it.

I like the Frozen Four. I don’t care for John Buccigross on the call. He’s much better in studio. Don’t tell ESPN that. But that was a great game. I felt bad for the Michigan players. The Pioneers were the better team than the Wolverines. So, they’ll play Minnesota State for the championship on Saturday night. Too bad college hockey fans got jerked around.

ESPN airs too many games. It didn’t help that it was Opening Day. We have ESPN U. So, I guessed right and flipped to it to see the conclusion. All while peeking in on the Rangers and Penguins.

That was the save Shesterkin made on Guentzel. It was his best of the game. There were some other key stops. But that was the one that really told the Pens they needed to do something special to beat him.

Early on, Guentzel absorbed a Jacob Trouba hit against the boards. Unlike most of his hits, this one wasn’t clean. He led with his elbow and got sent off for elbowing. It was a sharp penalty kill that limited the Pens to one shot. A Mike Matheson try from distance that Shesterkin plucked out of the air.

Following the successful kill, the third line got a pair of scoring chances. First, Lafreniere was denied by Jarry. Then, Chytil got a step on Matheson and drove hard to the net. But Jarry denied him point blank before Chytil’s momentum carried him into the Pittsburgh netminder. It was clean. Play on after the stoppage.

Danton Heinen tried a wraparound that Shesterkin got across and denied. Then, it was Jarry’s turn to make a stop on Dryden Hunt. Halfway through the period, a pinching Trouba drew a tripping minor on Rickard Rakell.

Instead of doing anything with the man-advantage, it was man disadvantage. This was maybe the worst I’ve seen from the top unit. They did nothing. No setup time. No shots. Lousy entries. Easy Penguin clears. The second unit was no better. Brutal.

If you thought special teams would matter in this one, you were wrong. Neither team established much on the power play. The Pens went 0 for 3 while the Rangers took the collar in two forgettable five-on-four’s where they never registered a shot. As well as he played overall, is Adam Fox allowed to SHOOT THE PUCK? Holy moly.

Funny enough, when Fox took a shot during five-on-five, he hit the post. I wish he looked shot more on the power play. It can’t always be pass with him. He has 10 goals and none have come on the five-on-four. Nine even strength. One shorthanded. Think of how much better he could be if he shot occasionally on the power play. That’s what makes Cale Makar better. He is always a threat.

Late in the period, Kreider got ahead of the play and had a good rush. But his shot just missed with eight seconds to spare. That close to number 48. I expected it to go in. Vatrano also missed wide before the buzzer sounded.

Shots were 10-9 home team. There really wasn’t much separating them. It was hard fought. Both Shesterkin and Jarry made the saves. The defense was solid. Plus you had the physicality you’d expect in such a meaningful game. The Pens knew the importance. They didn’t want to fall six points behind in the standings.

Whatever was said between periods, it was the Rangers who came out sharper in the second. Right away, Zibanejad got the puck up for Kreider on a three-on-three rush. However, both Brian Dumoulin and Malkin got caught puck watching.

When Kreider had a pass deflect in front, it came right to Vatrano who in one motion swept a backhand underneath a still sliding Jarry for the game’s first goal 24 seconds in. Make that six goals for Frankie V. He’s 6-2-8 in a dozen games since coming over from the Panthers. Julien Gauthier has 3 in 47. Kakko five in 37.

Buoyed by the early goal to take the lead, the Rangers continued to make life difficult on the Pens. After a couple of stops from Shesterkin on Rodriguez and Rakell, they blocked shots and turned up the physical play.

On one shift where Brian Boyle thought he had an opening, Schneider quickly closed it by leveling him with a solid hit that shook the big man. Boyle did go back at Schneider. Playoff caliber hockey.

It was that kind of game. Overall, the Rangers blocked 17 shots. They were led by a more assertive Fox, who had five. Partner Ryan Lindgren also played inspired by adding four. When they play like that, they’re a much tougher pair for opponents to deal with.

There were quite a few hits delivered by Angello and Mark Friedman. The Pens finished with 28 hits while the Blueshirts had 22 led by the gritty Goodrow (5). He was a pest. That’s exactly why I wanted Chris Drury to get him last summer. Goodie is worth it. That combination of skill, grit and toughness wins.

If there was a key sequence, it came nearly at the halfway point. Following a near miss by Rust on a tip-in, Shesterkin made a routine stop on Rodriguez to get a face-off. On a win from Copp, the second line came up the ice in transition.

Trouba led Copp, who drew attention while the Pens got distracted. Chad Ruhwedel puck watched Copp, who eventually was able to make a good pass to a wide open Panarin. He cut in and roofed a backhand past Jarry at 9:47 to make it 2-0.

You could’ve tuned out after that. There was no way the Pens were coming back. Not with Malkin skating around aimlessly without a single shot. Shesterkin wasn’t having it. After denying Rodriguez, he then robbed Guentzel on the doorstep to familiar “Ig-or, Ig-or,” chants. For good measure, he gloved a Matheson shot later.

As the period expired, the Rangers nearly scored. But it was too late. That’s why Jarry didn’t bother. He heard the horn and knew the play was over. What wasn’t was the obvious anger some Pens had at the end of the second. It didn’t work.

Shesterkin made early saves twice on Carter. He’s still a good player. While former 2003 first round pick Ryan Getzlaf calls it a career with the Ducks, veterans like Carter and Corey Perry are still hanging around continuing to be effective players. Full credit to each. Look at Boyle. He was in that draft too. He still can play a checking role.

As usual, the Rangers didn’t have many shots in the third. However, they got the best opportunity. On a smart play, Zibanejad came around the net and nearly snuck a wraparound by Jarry. But he came up large to give his team a chance.

Pittsburgh would get the next five shots all at five-on-five. Shesterkin wasn’t cooperating. To be fair, most of these saves were ones he saw. They were defended well. The Rangers were good defensively. They protected the house. You rarely saw Guentzel by himself directly in front. Rust was also not a factor. A rarity for a good player.

Finally, Malkin was able to draw an interference on Trouba. It was questionable at best. That’s all I’ll say. I saw a lot of our fans complaining including the incomparable Howie. He hates every ref. I enjoy his rants.

The Penguins didn’t do much with the power play. Not unless you consider a long Letang point shot that Guentzel missed a threat to our goalie. The penalty kill was outstanding. Kreider, Goodrow and Motte all made key defensive plays.

Motte played his usual spunky game. Unfortunately, he exited following the Angello hit that changed things. With Motte down and hurting, teammates responded during a scrum. Nothing happened. They reviewed the Angello hit and made the right call of an interference minor.

Instead of putting the game away, the Blueshirts had a power outage. It was infected by Penguins. Was the ice covering up 🐧 underneath the surface? Who knows. A Batman reference. Danny Devito would be proud along with Burgess Meredith.

With under five minutes to play, Jonny Brodzinski got his stick into Rakell to take one of those needless holding minors. Following a Shesterkin denial on Guentzel, he missed the net on a good pass. That is the Igor factor. We’ve seen it before.

Then in the neutral zone, Malkin lost his cool with Goodrow. The two started wrestling in front of the benches. The linesmen finally blew the play dead to regain control. But not before Matheson jumped in on Goodrow. Somehow, the idiots calling the game thought Kreider could’ve been third man in. Did they even watch? He only came in due to Matheson.

At the end of the day, both Malkin and a chatty Goodrow each received matching roughing minors. I loved it. It never gets old seeing Malkin lose it.

Eventually, Mike Sullivan lifted Jarry for the extra attacker. Following missed empty nets by Copp and Trouba, it was Hunt who hit it from inside his own zone to finish off the Pens with 38 seconds left. A nice reward for a tenacious player.

Predictably, after a Hunt check on Marcus Pettersson with a couple of seconds remaining, it was a bunch of angry Pens that jumped Kreider near the side boards after the final buzzer sounded. Sheer lunacy.

My favorite part is after Kreider got up and shook it off, he had some choice words before using two fingers to point to the scoreboard. It was the Rangers that got the two points. The defacto captain handled it like a champ.

Even following the traditional wave of the sticks to salute the crowd, the Pens stayed on the ice and waited. This was minor league stuff. They really wanted to start a brawl. Pengwhines.

There is nothing else left to add. This was a satisfying win. One that was expected. Especially without Crosby playing for the Pens. Even though Shesterkin made 30 saves including a few of the key ones I mentioned, there was never any sense that they would beat him.

It was an easy win because the Pens were already defeated. At least that’s how it looked. There are three weeks left in the season. Then playoffs. The first real postseason since 2017. MSG will be rocking.

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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