A crushing loss: Rangers’ comeback falls short in 7-4 defeat to Pens, trail series two games to one, Shesterkin lifted, Missing Mika, Special Teams failure

This was a crusher. There’s no other way to put it. Despite a valiant effort to rally from a three-goal first period deficit with a great second period comeback, the Rangers lost Game Three to the Pens in tough fashion.

Pittsburgh used a fluke goal from Danton Heinen to break a 4-4 tie and then added two empty netters for a 7-4 home victory before over 18,000 screaming Pens fans at PPG Paints Arena. They now lead the best-of-seven first round series two games to one.

Why did the Rangers lose? Let’s count the ways.

A. They got off to a bad start. Urged on by their crowd, the Pens got the game’s first goal and dominated the first period by outscoring the Blueshirts 4-1.

B. Igor Human. It was a forgettable road playoff debut for Igor Shesterkin. He was not sharp from the outset allowing four goals on 15 shots. That included two he usually has. Following the first period, he was lifted in favor of Alex Georgiev. Although be gave them a chance at the comeback, Georgiev allowed a bad goal on the winner that proved costly.

C. Poor Special Teams. An area that had been a team strength turned into a nightmare in Game Three. The Rangers penalty kill allowed a pair of Penguin power play goals late to secondary players who hadn’t scored. Their power play failed miserably in three consecutive chances despite Andrew Copp’s shorthanded goal that tied the game.

D. Secondary Scoring. Although the third line played well with Alexis Lafreniere and Filip Chytil setting up Kaapo Kakko for his first career postseason goal, that paled in comparison to the offensive contributions the Pens got. Four different players scored including a pair from Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues with Heinen getting the winner with 8:58 left in regulation.

E. Missing Mika. By now, you have to be wondering what’s happened to Mika Zibanejad. While he did pick up an assist on Frank Vatrano’s third of the postseason, he didn’t establish himself. Zibanejad is without a goal in the series and made a critical mistake on the Heinen winner. He also had a tough night on face-offs losing 14 of 20.

F. Coaching. You have to wonder if Gerard Gallant is doing enough to expose the Pens, who remained without Brian Dumoulin and Rickard Rakell. Mike Sullivan is down to third stringer Louis Domingue and he was good enough to win in crunch time. Sullivan got a favorable match-up by putting out the Evgeni Malkin line against the Rangers’ third pair. The result was disastrous. That tactical move along with a strong response from a clearly shaken team allowed the Pens to win the game.

Everything noted above factored into a brutal loss for the Rangers. Now, they must respond again like in Game Two. Game Four is a must if they want to give themselves the best possible chance to win the series.

The real frustrating aspect is that they could’ve won all three games. Don’t blame the refs. They miss calls in every game due to the game’s speed.

Is it their fault the penalty kill couldn’t stop world beaters Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues near the conclusion of Pittsburgh power plays?

Was it their responsibility when the Rangers did everything but score on three straight power plays? I suppose it’s their fault Patrik Nemeth got taken off the puck by Malkin and Zibanejad over skated to cause the Danton Heinen soft game-winner Alex Georgiev allowed.

Enough already with the officiating. Good teams can overcome a few missed calls. Even a delay of game that a furious Lafreniere protested. Plus a high-stick to Frank Vatrano with the Blueshirts trailing by one. They still had their chances and didn’t take it.

In this blog, you won’t get any excuses. That’s for losers. I think most of our fan base forgot what it was like to be in the playoffs. Look at the way they act.

Everyone cried when Brock McGinn’s goal off Nemeth counted as he pushed the net off at 1:57. Where were they when Andrew Copp tied the game shorthanded when Kris Letang did the same exact thing? Both were the right calls.

As tough a start as that was where McGinn got a bounce for an unassisted goal to give the Pens an early lead, the third line responded with the equalizer less than four minutes later.

On what was a heckuva play, Lafreniere took a Chytil pass and made a terrific backhand pass across for a cutting Kakko, who beat Louis Domingue short side, high glove at 5:08. It was an excellent play by all three. They were the best line during the game.

If the three former first round picks are the Rangers’ most effective at five-on-five, that’s a problem. It means the top two scoring lines must pick it up starting Monday.

Nobody has struggled more than Mika Zibanejad. Even though he has three assists in the series, he can’t find a goal. Being matched up against Sidney Crosby is no small task. He gets credit along with Chris Kreider and Vatrano for doing a better job against Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust.

However, Zibanejad has no goals on 10 shots thus far. Had he been able to convert on a glorious chance that a sprawling Domingue stopped during the second Rangers’ power play, it could’ve been a better result. They must get production from number 93. It can’t be Missing Mika on a milk carton.

There have been better efforts from Kreider and Vatrano. Kreider has two goals and two assists while being focused on. Vatrano has been superb producing two goals and two helpers while getting some more opportunities due to his shoot first mentality.

The Artemi Panarin line was very effective as the game went on. Coming off a three-point game in Game Two, Panarin scored his second of the series to pull the Blueshirts within one during a second period onslaught.

That line buzzed around the Pittsburgh net. Both Copp and Ryan Strome had good nights. Strome was very visible battling in front on the Panarin snipe that he assisted on. Copp blew a couple of point blank chances in the slot by missing wide. If he buries one of those, we might be talking about a win. They combined for 13 shots and 24 attempts.

You could make an argument that they were unlucky. But that would also be discrediting Domingue, who made some tremendous saves. His best came when he robbed Panarin with a desperation stop on a dominant Rangers five-on-four. I still dont know how they didn’t score. That determined the game.

Domingue made 32 saves on 36 shots. Fourteen came in a busy second where his team were on their heels. He stopped nine in the third period to pickup the win. The second of the series for a veteran who relieved injured goalie Casey DeSmith in overtime of Game One.

Somehow, the Rangers are trailing this series despite having a huge edge in net. You’d never know it by how the Penguins chased Shesterkin, who was off his game.

While some will second guess Gallant for going to Georgiev after the nightmarish first, he had to do something to get his team’s attention. Personally, I would’ve used a timeout after Rodrigues made it 3-1 on the second straight Pens power play goal.

Instead, he didn’t do anything to stop the momentum. With the building rocking with their Terrible Towels (Steelers), Gallant watched Braden Schneider get rocked by Brian Boyle on a clean hit. After getting separated by the puck, Schneider watched Boyle set up Rodrigues in the slot for his second of the period to make it 4-1.

It was a rough game for the third pair. Nemeth got victimized twice. First on the strange McGinn unassisted tally that set the tone. He had the puck go off him as he banged into the net. The call of no goal was quickly overturned. There was no ref in position to see it. It was an obvious goal.

Nemeth got overpowered by Malkin, who had been quiet most of the night. That turnover in the corner resulted in Heinen scoring his first at 11:02 of the third period. He finished minus-three.

The interesting part of the first period is that the Rangers actually played well at even strength. Instead of throwing long unscreened shots on Domingue, they aimed low for rebounds that were available. The strategic change was applied throughout the game.

Despite that, here came the Pens. On a forecheck by their checking unit, McGinn won a board battle against Nemeth. He then sent a harmless looking puck towards Shesterkin that deflected in.

Initially, the out of position stripes ruled it no goal. However, it was obvious that as McGinn’s shot was headed in, Nemeth’s skate knocked the net off. In that situation, it’s usually a goal. When they got off the phone, the play was reversed to give the Pens a 1-0 lead less than two minutes in.

Rather than get deflated, the Blueshirts responded the right way. They continued to attack the Penguins better at five-on-five. With more precision, Chytil got the puck up to Lafreniere who gained the Pittsburgh zone and made a good cross-ice pass to Kakko for his first of the postseason at 5:08.

It really felt like they had withstood the push. Instead, an iffy Justin Braun holding minor on Heinen handed the Pens a power play. After they handled the top unit even getting a shorthanded chance from Kreider that Domingue denied, out came the second unit.

If the penalty kill thought it was time to relax, they sure paid for it. After Mike Matheson gained the zone, he moved the puck up for a Rodrigues point shot that went off Carter’s skate right through Shesterkin at 8:18.

That was one Shesterkin should’ve had. He couldn’t squeeze his pads together. That really hurt the momentum. The power play goal came with 11 seconds left in the penalty. Regardless if it was a soft call, that was a bad job by the penalty killers and Igor.

Things got even worse. Following an Adam Fox turnover, Copp high-sticked Jason Zucker. Playing his first game of the series, he was a factor by finishing checks and drawing a penalty.

After the penalty kill again threatened shorthanded against the Pens’ first unit, they let down. Domingue moved the puck up to Matheson who had all kinds of room to set up Rodrigues for a 3-1 lead only 2:13 later.

At that point, you could feel the Rangers unraveling. Nothing changed. No timeout to stop the Pens’ momentum along with the energy in the building. That was questionable.

It didn’t get any better. While Domingue was making the saves even though he looked shaky, the Pens were delivering big hits that got the crowd even more into it. They went after Fox. The plan worked.

On a play near the boards, Schneider got taken off the puck by a clean Boyle hit. He then passed for a wide open Rodrigues, who easily beat a shaken Shesterkin with 4:45 left to make it 4-1.

It was shocking. I don’t think anyone envisioned a 4-1 Pens lead in the first period. Especially after the Rangers showed early signs of how to attack them. Nobody had Shesterkin getting chased for four goals on 15 shots after a period.

When the second period started, Gallant made the move to Georgiev. It was debatable. But I understood why. Something had to change.

In a role reversal, the Rangers turned it up. They generated scoring chances both in transition and on the forecheck. As the shots mounted, you could feel the momentum shift.

Following some close calls, they finally broke through on Domingue. On a play Zibanejad started up to a skating Kreider, he flew in and centered for a quick Vatrano one-timer that whizzed by Domingue upstairs to cut it to 4-2 at 6:51.

Before they knew what hit them, the suddenly reeling Pens got pinned in their zone by the Panarin line. Following a near miss, good plays by Strome and Fox combined to find an open Panarin. He waited for Kris Letang to move before wiring a shot high glove for his second.

The two goals came 1:07 apart. Just that quickly, the score went from 4-1 to 4-3. With the Blueshirts continuing to pile up the shots on Domingue, Copp nearly tied it. However, he missed wide on a perfect set up.

At one point, the shots were 11-0 Rangers. Georgiev finally saw his first shot and handled it. He’d make seven saves in the stress free period. He didn’t look nervous for his first postseason action.

With less than five minutes remaining in the second, Schneider hooked into Rodrigues. That gave the Pens their third power play. However, it was the Rangers who made the most of it.

After a clear down the ice, an aggressive Kevin Rooney pressured Letang in the neutral zone. He forced him into a bad turnover. Breaking in, he had his shot stopped by Domingue. The rebound came right to Copp for a shorthanded goal that tied the score with 4:01 remaining.

On the Copp goal, Letang banged into his own net pushing it off. However, like we saw on the McGinn goal early on, the play counted. Consistent with what the rules are.

By then, you didn’t want the period to end. When Heinen hooked into Fox enough to hand the Rangers their first power play, it felt like it was just a matter of time. But they failed to score on the first 1:25 to keep the game tied headed to the third.

After the Pens killed off the remaining 25 seconds of the Heinen minor, Malkin took down Schneider to give the Rangers their second straight power play. That was the opportunity they’ll be thinking about in their sleep. If they actually can.

Able to get whatever they wanted, twice they had Zibanejad in his office for quality chances. Following one save by Domingue on the first, Zibanejad had what looked like a gimme. However, his point blank one-timer was miraculously stopped by a sprawling Domingue.

Strome would also come close in front. Then Panarin had a great look, but fired high and wide. It really was incredible. The Pens were pinned in for nearly the whole two minutes. What a wasted opportunity.

Unfortunately, there would be one more. Following a couple of big Georgiev saves on Crosby in tight, Heinen slashed Nemeth in the offensive zone to hand the Blueshirts a third consecutive power play.

Instead of taking advantage, they didn’t. In fact, not one shot got through to Domingue. It was the more desperate Pens’ penalty killers who got it done. It really came back to bite them.

Back at five-on-five, they did get a couple of opportunities. Copp had a shot stopped by Domingue, who really sparked his team. He then flat out robbed Panarin on a slap shot. A gigantic save with the game hanging in the balance.

One thing that was noteworthy was Sullivan getting the Crosby line away from the Zibanejad line. Instead, it was the Malkin line against them. With the third pair on, it was a heavy Malkin hit that forced Nemeth to cough up the puck in the corner.

Despite that turnover, Zibanejad was in the area to retrieve the loose puck. Instead, he over skated. That caused Heinen to pick up the puck and take a harmless looking wrist shot on Georgiev. Somehow, the puck went underneath his glove to give the Pens a 5-4 lead with 8:58 remaining.

It was a crusher. You could see the pained look on Georgiev’s face after it went in. He couldn’t believe it. Nobody could. He had made some much better saves in relief. Yet allowed that softy. Wow.

As much heat as he’s getting for the loss, don’t forget that Shesterkin had a horrible first period. As hard as that is to say, he didn’t have it. That’s what put them in this position. Their goalie edge was a disadvantage in Game Three.

Following that goal, there was some controversy. It appeared that a Penguin deflected a puck directly out of play. An emotional Lafreniere protested. He clearly knew it. But the five officials couldn’t even conference and get it right. Howie suggested they review such plays. I agree.

The bigger miss was the failure to notice that Vatrano took a high stick after initially getting held. Nobody saw it. Those kind of stick infractions are frequently missed. You have three refs and two linesmen for the playoffs. It doesn’t matter.

If you saw the Avalanche/Predators game, you know how confusing the officiating can be. Gabriel Landeskog scored a go-ahead goal that counted even though a Colorado player’s skate made contact with Connor Ingram. It was challenged and lost. The Avalanche added a power play goal to pull away for the win. Former ref Don Koharski couldn’t believe it.

This is where the NHL is at. There are gonna be missed calls in these games. There are also going to be controversial rulings that can impact the outcome. I’m not going to rehash the overturned Chytil goal in Game One. What’s the point?

The Rangers never got the kind of high quality chances needed to seriously threaten in the final five minutes. The Pens defended better and also attacked. They were harder on the puck and earned it.

After Gallant finally wasted called his timeout, he pulled Georgiev with over two minutes left. But following a rare Zibanejad face-off win, Crosby broke up the play and fed Guentzel for an empty netter with 2:14 left.

Over a minute later, another good Crosby defensive play allowed Carter to score his second into the vacated net. That was it.

There isn’t much to add. But I found one Kreider quote very telling. In the postgame, he said he doesn’t think they’re playing together. He went onto say that they have to work smart. Not just hard. He didn’t feel they got to their game quick enough early. It showed.

He’s right. That’s the real issue. Why is that? Gallant is supposed to be in control. He’s the coach. How can they play so disjointed in such big games? They’re not being consistent enough.

This isn’t the regular season. Even with a supposed goalie edge due to Tristan Jarry and now DeSmith being out, we aren’t seeing the true Blueshirts. Either they get it together for Game Four. Even the series. Or it’s likely going to be a very disappointing end to a good season.


3rd 🌟 Mike Matheson Pens 3 assists, 4 SOG, +1 in 23:23

2nd 🌟 Jeff Carter Pens 2 goals, 4 SOG, 6-for-12 face-offs in 13:42

1st 🌟 Evan Rodrigues Pens 2 goals plus 🍎, 5 SOG in 9:28

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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