Blueshirts can send message to banged up Pens by winning Game Three

The reality of tonight’s Game Three is that it’s a chance for the Rangers to send a message. Facing a banged up Pens who are being carried by one of the game’s greatest players in Sidney Crosby, they enter Saturday’s big game with the series tied.

No matter what happened to help decide the marathon Game One which Evgeni Malkin won three periods after it looked like Filip Chytil had the apparent winner late in regulation, the bottom line is they are where they are now.

That means building on the 5-2 victory to take Game Two at MSG to even the best-of-seven first round series. It’s the Blueshirts who have the edge in scoring depth thanks to key pickups Andrew Copp (2 goals) and Frank Vatrano, whose goal and two assists proved large on Thursday night.

While the Pens have done a good job keying on Mika Zibanejad (0 goals, 2 assists) due to the match-up with Crosby, they still must deal with Artemi Panarin. He sprung to life in Game Two with a goal and two assists.

Even though he wasn’t good defensively with the line caught on for both Penguin goals, the Bread Man provided enough offense to help the Rangers tie the series. That line with Copp and a very effective Ryan Strome must do a better job coming back defensively.

With the Pens learning that Casey DeSmith had core muscle surgery which has ended his postseason and Tristan Jarry still rehabbing, Louis Domingue is the goalie.

The veteran actually played better than his final line the other night. You could only classify one goal as stoppable with Vatrano able to catch Domingue off his angle to make it 5-2. He actually came up with some good saves to keep his team in it.

Obviously, the Rangers have a big edge in net with the expected Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin. An unflappable 26-year old Russian brick wall who followed up a franchise record 79 saves in triple overtime by making another 39 including some clutch ones early in the third period to make certain that his team went back to Pittsburgh with some momentum.

When you boast a goalie who’s stopped a ridiculous 118 of 124 shots over two games, that is remarkable. Especially when you observe that the Pens have gotten players in front to make it tough on Shesterkin.

One key to getting tonight’s Game Three is for enough Rangers to do a better job clearing the net front. By minimizing the traffic and letting Shesterkin see most of the shots, that should make it easier. That means better details whenever Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are sent out by Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan.

At the moment, Ryan Lindgren didn’t take the morning skate. The key defenseman remains a game-time decision for tonight. He didn’t play Game Two. Instead, it was veteran Justin Braun supplying important minutes at five-on-five and on the penalty kill to aid Adam Fox, who had a strong Game Two.

K’Andre Miller did a lot of things right in his second career postseason game. He was defensively responsible while stepping up offensively to assist on two Ranger goals. The second-year defenseman is playing big minutes under Gerard Gallant. He continues to pair up with Jacob Trouba, who has been physical in the tough match-up versus Crosby.

Even with Pittsburgh likely again without key defensive ace Brian Dumoulin (day-to-day) and Rickard Rakell (day-to-day), the Blueshirts must understand that they have to play a good overall game.

That means enough forwards back checking. No stick checks like we saw on the highlight reel Crosby goal on Thursday.   No shortcuts. Better cohesion. That means less unforced giveaways like the one Panarin had to Crosby that led directly to Guentzel’s third in two games.

It means better puck management. No matter how tonight’s game is called by the stripes, they must avoid undisciplined retaliation penalties. You know the Pens crowd will be working the officials, who thus far have let some stuff go.

That doesn’t matter. Good teams fight through it. If they are able to sustain more pressure down low against the Penguins, that can tire out their defense and lead to more power plays. The Pens know how dangerous the Rangers are on the power play. Sullivan made sure to note that his penalty kill must improve.

Five-on-five, you’d like to see Zibanejad, Kreider and Vatrano play more in the Pens zone. It isn’t easy going up against Crosby. However, we haven’t seen the best of Zibanejad yet. He needs to show up. Kreider and Vatrano have both been involved.

The supporting cast has taken a hit with Barclay Goodrow done for the series. A blocked shot early in Game One has caused the lower-body injury that has him week-to-week.

It sounds like the rumors are true about him suffering a broken ankle. A tough break for a glue guy who does his best work this time of year. Regardless, it’s Next Man Up. That means more of Dryden Hunt, whose lunch pail work ethic can provide energy to the checking line that consists of Kevin Rooney and the physical Ryan Reaves.

The third line remains a key. Filip Chytil has been close to scoring. We all know about the wiped out goal with 3:10 left in regulation that might’ve cost the Rangers Game One. The strong Kaapo Kakko play to the net where he made contact with DeSmith after a Dumoulin shove that left Chytil wide open for a tap-in.

The 50/50 play didn’t count. The rest is history. However, Chytil has had a couple of more close calls. He has to stay aggressive along with Alexis Lafreniere, whose nine hits and strong forecheck have been noticeable.

There’s a feeling that line can be a factor. Any offensive support from the bottom six would be welcome. It can’t just fall on the top six for everything. Scoring depth is crucial in the postseason.

Gallant provided an update on Tyler Motte. He’s finally skating. Who knows if or when he can return. It would be a big boost if we saw Motte sooner rather than later. Especially to help upgrade a fourth line that while effective, doesn’t pack much punch.

One player the Pens could get back is Jason Zucker. He’s been practicing. Sullivan called him a game-time decision. If he returns later, that will help offset the loss of Rakell, who skated yesterday. He isn’t expected to play.

It’s interesting to note that none of the supporting forwards have scored. Five of the six Pens’ goals have come from Crosby, Guentzel and Rust. The other of course was Malkin’s winner in three overtimes.

Pittsburgh has had opportunities from their secondary forwards with Danton Heinen and Brian Boyle coming close. It isn’t that different from the Rangers’ third line.

We’ve seen Fox and Miller involved from the blue line. Kris Letang has played a ton. But hasn’t factored in yet. He and Mike Matheson are the Pens’ best offensive contributors from the back end.

It’s interesting to note that the Rangers played tighter checking games in their two regular season games at Pittsburgh. That’s a style they must get back to.

Gallant hasn’t really been focused on what the Pens are doing. He should be. Getting the right match-ups are important. You know Sullivan will look to avoid having the Crosby line against Miller and Trouba. He’ll try to get favorable match-ups against the Rangers’ third and fourth line with the final change.

Gallant needs to make sure he can change on the fly and avoid mismatches. That includes keeping the third pair of Patrik Nemeth and Braden Schneider away from Crosby or even Malkin. We’ll see how he handles the chess match on the road.

Figure the Pens to come out fast. They’ll feed off the home crowd. The Blueshirts will likely have to withstand an early push. Playing smart defensively and avoiding the penalty box will help the cause.

The injury factor is one that happens every postseason. That doesn’t matter. It’s about heart and guts now. No matter who’s in net for the Pens. The Rangers must play with that intensity to regain home ice. We’ll see if they’re up to the challenge.

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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