Improbable. Unthinkable. Incredible. Exhilarating. High Anxiety. That’s what comes to mind after a dramatic conclusion to a great series.
In what amounted to a gutsy performance, the Never Say Die Rangers found a way to come back and stun the Penguins 4-3 in overtime to win a deciding Game Seven before a sellout crowd at MSG.
Artemi Panarin scored at 4:46 of sudden death on the power play to become the ultimate hero in an evenly matched first round series. His third goal came at the right time for the Rangers, who advance to the second round where they’ll face the Hurricanes.
It wouldn’t have been possible without the clutch play of Mika Zibanejad. His tying goal past Tristan Jarry with 5:45 left in regulation saved the season. A big reason for the come from behind win in Game Six, Zibanejad had a great night finishing with the clutch goal and two assists.
There wouldn’t have even been an overtime without the brilliant play of Igor Shesterkin. In the biggest game of his life, he was spectacular. Without the 42 saves on 45 shots with many big ones at key moments, the Pens run away with it. He really delivered.
I have to admit that I didn’t feel that confident after Evan Rodrigues scored a shorthanded goal to put the Penguins back up 3-2 late in the second period. At that point, it was the special teams of Pittsburgh that were responsible for all three goals.
It was a strange game. There were times where the Rangers were good at five-on-five. However, there were also too many shifts where they either got caught pinching or blew coverages to give the dangerous Penguin transition point blank opportunities.
The only reason they didn’t score was due to Shesterkin, who brought his A game tonight. He might’ve gave up three goals. But none were bad. He made a lot of money saves to keep his team in it.
When he wasn’t stoning Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and other attacking Pens, who were like killer bees around his net, they missed shots high and wide. They also hit a goalpost.
Somehow, it was the Rangers who got three of their four goals at even strength. They beat Jarry three times on 23 shots at five-on-five. Conversely, the Penguins didn’t beat Shesterkin once on 33 shots when teams were at full strength.
They had way more attempts when the sides were even. Like I said, it was a strange game. Usually, it’s the special teams that give the Blueshirts the upper hand. That was the difference in Game Six.
Although they did get the ultimate one from Panarin following a Brock McGinn penalty that he had to take to deny K’Andre Miller of a potential overtime winner, this was a wacky deciding game.
There were a few big storylines entering Sunday night’s do or die game. First and foremost, would Crosby and Jarry play along with Rickard Rakell? Is Mike Sullivan truthful?
Of course, Crosby was ready and took warm-ups along with Jarry and Rakell, who played his first game since Game One. As it turned out, Crosby never had a concussion. Maybe it was the shoulder or something else. I actually wanted him to play anyway. I always prefer the best players be healthy and win straight-up.
Love or hate him, Crosby is an all-time great. Yes. His line was scary during shifts with him back between Mr. Playoffs, Guentzel and the pesky Bryan Rust. A good player in his own right. They combined for 13 shots and 18 attempts. At least they didn’t dominate like earlier in the hard fought seven-game series.
Another storyline was how would the more inexperienced Blueshirts deal with a home Game Seven on Garden ice. Of course, MSG Network recapped the history of seventh games in the building. That included the bitter taste from the last one against the Lightning.
I don’t put any stock in that statistic. While the history is favorable, it doesn’t matter. Who had the Rangers rallying back to win Games Five and Six from identical 2-0 deficits? Who had them scoring first tonight and then needing to again pull a Houdini act to pull off the trifecta? Exactly.
None of this stuff means anything. It’s nice to look at. It has no bearing on the outcome between two different rosters. Even if the more battle tested Pens still boast Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Kris Letang, Guentzel and Rust from the most recent championship teams. They were without Brian Dumoulin for most of the series.
What about the crowd? Could they give the Broadway side an edge? I honestly am disappointed. It’s not the same fans from the deep runs in ’14 and ’15. Nor even 2017. There just aren’t as many, “Let’s Go Rangers,” chants. By the third, the crowd seemed nervous. There wasn’t a lot of energy.
That might’ve been due to it also being the first big game in quite some time. I think a good portion knew they were underdogs even in their own building. We all saw what Crosby could do in the first five games before the injury in the second period of Game Five.
When you have all the ESPN and TNT panels picking the Pens before knowing Crosby would return, I didn’t mind. I’d rather be counted out. This team seems to fare better when everything is up against them. That’s why they’re the Comeback Kids. They’ve proven experts wrong all year.
I laid out some keys to winning. They ignored it. That’s this team. They find a way.
Okay. They delivered on three important points. They won face-offs. Going 28-and-30 against a good face-off team was big. Zibanejad dominated going 18-for-25. Crosby actually lost 13-of-23.
The best players showed up. Zibanejad was the best skater on the ice. He really came through. It gets no bigger than that tying goal on a great shot past Jarry’s glove inside the top of the net to force overtime.
How about Kreider? He got things started by finishing off a beautiful Zibanejad pass off a two-on-one to give them an early lead. If not for his two goals including the improbable game-decider with 1:28 left in the third period, there’s no seventh game. The true captain delivered when it counted. His experience shined.
For the most part, Panarin struggled with pucks all game. He couldn’t get them to settle. The ice was bad due to a concert the previous night. As frustrating as he was at times which included an exasperating high-sticking minor with under 12 minutes left in the third at a crucial time, he was able to deliver the money goal in OT to win the series.
I already covered Shesterkin. He was outstanding. He made several standout saves including denying Crosby and Guentzel in tight. There was a huge glove save on Letang. Plus two acrobatic denials on Rodrigues that defied logic. He was Ig-or.
Before I get into the game recap, I want to single out Gerard Gallant. I critiqued him earlier in the series for not getting the match-ups. However, he did a much better job in the final two games.
That included making some key adjustments during the third period when things were looking bleak. After I tweeted out that Alexis Lafreniere should be moved up, he then was out with Zibanejad and Andrew Copp for a shift.
That new trio delivered for the game-tying goal Zibanejad scored at 14:15. Lafreniere was very noticeable. It was active shift behind the net that caused Marcus Pettersson to lose his helmet.
It wasn’t intentional as Sullivan accused Lafreniere of. It was simply a battle. As it turned out, Pettersson could’ve put the helmet back on without the strap according to former ref Dave Jackson. They didn’t know the rule.
That big play led to Copp out-hustling a Pen on the corner to feed Zibanejad for a rocket that sent the crowd into bedlam. Over the final two games, Zibanejad had seven points (3-4-7). He really delivered. Good for him on sticking with it.
I also liked the usage of gritty forward Tyler Motte. Gallant did a great job mixing up his line combos in crunch time. It really paid off.
Even my good Penguins friend Alyssa noticed. We chatted a little during the game. If you don’t follow her, please do. She has an awesome YouTube channel and is _Alyssa_Hope on Twitter. An excellent hockey fan and unique talent.
Now let’s get into a memorable game that made this first round series special. I’d even have to say that had they lost. It’s much easier to do it after an emotional win. Especially given my anxiety. Holy moly.
After Ryan Reaves did his epic Release Us following his hilarious starting lineup intro that caught Kreider chuckling, the anthem was sung and they dropped the puck for Game Seven. I kinda wish they’d played a video of John Amirante. He might be gone. But he’s still there in spirits. Nobody can ever replace him.
The opening draw was promising. Zibanejad won it. Then Kreider got into the Penguins zone and got off an early backhand eight seconds in which tested Jarry immediately. Exactly what you wanted.
On the next shift, Miller turned over the puck in the neutral zone. That caused an early Pens two-on-one. But Jacob Trouba played it perfectly to force a shot wide.
The Rangers had the game’s first three shots including a Filip Chytil backhand and Zibanejad wrist shot that Jarry handled. Finally, Jeff Carter got a long wrist shot on Shesterkin that he stopped.
Then came a crazy sequence. With the Pens’ checking line pressing the attack against the third pair of Justin Braun and Braden Schneider, they nearly struck. Following a close call from Brock McGinn, Rodrigues had two cracks at scoring. Shesterkin made a couple of unbelievable acrobatic stops to keep the puck out.
With the fans into it saluting Shesterkin with more friendly, “Ig-or, Ig-or,” chants, Schneider trapped a Penguin defenseman with an outlet to send Zibanejad and Kreider in on a two-on-one. In a play that felt like it was in slow-motion, Kreider buried a Zibanejad feed with a laser over the glove of Jarry at 7:36 for a 1-0 lead.
Prior to the game, Steve Valiquette pointed out Jarry’s tendency to go down leaving the upper portion of the net exposed. For as much criticism as he receives, he really nailed it. This was a factor throughout the game.
When the third line was on during the opening period, they were good. Particularly Chytil. He made a few good defensive plays coming back and then created offense. He and Lafreniere were excellent at even strength. Kaapo Kakko didn’t establish much.
After that, the Pens really started to come. They began dictating the terms. Their relentless approach on the forecheck created havoc. It led to a few tough shots that Shesterkin shut down.
There were some misplays by Rangers including Adam Fox. He really struggled defensively. He got caught pinching to cause another two-on-one and had some sloppy turnovers. It was one of the worst periods I’ve seen him play.
With less than half the period left, Panarin slashed Mike Matheson to take one of those unnecessary minor penalties. That put the Penguins on the game’s first power play.
They were very deliberate. Strong defensive plays from Miller and Ryan Lindgren (block on Letang) killed precious time. Late in the five-on-four, Shesterkin made a good kick out on Rust.
Following the successful kill, they got caught napping. On a three-on-two rush, Pettersson pinched and fired a dangerous shot from the slot off the goalpost. That close to being tied.
The Chytil line came back out and established a forecheck. Lafreniere was able to get a good, hard low shot on Jarry, who was able to get the whistle. After a stoppage, Chytil won a draw and got another backhand on Jarry.
But on the next shift, Fox got caught cheating to lead to another Pens’ two-on-one. But Heinen missed the net high and wide. Another break. That’s what made the game weird. Pittsburgh had the better looks at five-on-five, but didn’t score.
On a tricky play by the Pens’ top line, Rust looked like he had Crosby for a goal. But Shesterkin got across to make a great save down low and covered the rebound. With Crosby digging, Lindgren knocked him down. That caused chaos between Rust and Ryan Strome. Each went off for matching roughing minors.
During the four-on-four, Trouba took a bad double minor for high-sticking Matheson, who was visibly bloody. Just a very undisciplined penalty. It hurt.
After some key blocks and strong penalty killing, it was the Penguins second unit that tied it. On a eerie play, Rodrigues and Carter were able to work the puck down low where Heinen got a rebound that just crossed the goal line.
Initially, they waved it off and play continued. But the horn blew down from Toronto who reviewed it. Fox nearly prevented it from going in. But video review confirmed the obvious. Heinen tied it on the power play with 1:09 left.
Pittsburgh remained on the five-on-four due to it being a double minor. The positive is they killed off the remainder that extended into the start of the second period.
Some fans contested that Heinen shoved Shesterkin’s pads which is illegal. That wasn’t the case. Sometimes, the conspiracy theorists lose their minds during these games. I understand being upset over the Chytil goal in Game One. But not everything is a conspiracy. Go watch JFK videos like I do in my free time.
In the second, Shesterkin came up large by denying Guentzel twice down low. As much love as Crosby gets, Guentzel is a handful to defend because he is always around the net. He’s dangerous.
On an inspired shift started by Motte, the fourth line nearly scored. After Rooney drew an interference minor on Matheson, Reaves sent a backhand rebound wide. Power play Blueshirts.
The top unit got some looks. With Kreider in too tight, he passed back for a good Fox shot that Jarry gloved for one of his best saves. He also would deny a strong Ryan Strome one-timer with a right pad kick save.
On a scoring chance down low, Chytil passed instead of shot. He tried to get the puck over for an open Lafreniere. If it worked, it’s an easy goal. He might’ve been better off taking it to the net.
On a make shift checking line that included Rooney, Motte and Kakko, they cycled the puck down low to cheers. That was followed up by a strong shift from Panarin. After a good pinch from Schneider, Panarin got a shot on Jarry who made the easy glove save.
Lindsey was right. They weren’t getting enough shots on Jarry. It was his first game back from a fractured foot. He gave up rebounds. Sometimes, this team is its own worst enemy. Stop with the passes. Shoot the puck!
On some good pressure from the Pens, Kakko coughed up the puck when a player moved in on him. His errant clear turned into a needless delay of game minor penalty.
Following two key Shesterkin stops on Malkin (blocker) and Letang (glove), the Pens were able to convert their second power play goal in odd fashion. After Crosby got the puck to Rust, he sent a pass that took a hop in the air for Guentzel, who batted it in just over Shesterkin at 10:18.
The Rangers immediately signaled that it was a high stick which would’ve negated the goal that was ruled on the ice. Having seen two replays on MSG, I felt it was good. It looked like Guentzel got it at crossbar height with the lower part of his stick.
It went upstairs to Toronto. They took their time reviewing it. But it was obvious that there was nothing definitive to reverse the call on the ice. Although they termed it that way, I never wavered. It looked good. Despite protests and more conspiracy crap, it was not illegal.
The Guentzel tally came with 9:42 left. It was his series best eighth. He really is impressive. Similar to what Kreider does. Also Gabriel Landeskog. He scored eight goals and his team lost.
Fortunately, this time it was the Rangers who had a quick response. On a good forecheck by Strome and Copp, they got the puck up to Miller, whose shot pass for Strome banked in off Matheson to tie it up 1:05 later. It was Miller’s first career postseason goal.
Following that goal, it was the Penguins who again created some dangerous chances. It was their third line that had the pick and nearly went ahead. But Miller did a good job limiting Rodrigues to a soft shot in close that Shesterkin easily covered.
Finally, the home side applied pressure in the Pens’ end. A Zibanejad tough shot forced Jarry into a tough stop. During the play, Rust cross-checked Trouba in front for a penalty.
Instead of taking advantage, they were sloppy. Too much passing and deliberate play from the top unit allowed for Pens’ clears. Eventually, Gallant stuck his second unit out. But a bad turnover from Chytil at the blue line led directly to a shorthanded goal from Rodrigues.
With Miller hustling back to try to break it up, he couldn’t quite make up the difference. Rodrigues was able to move in and catch Shesterkin down to put the puck upstairs high glove for a crushing shorthanded goal with one second remaining on the power play.
That go-ahead goal really felt like the beginning of the end. It came with 2:36 remaining and took the steam out of MSG. After getting outshot 13-8 in the first, they were outshot 18-12. The Pens led in shots 31-20. Far too many at that point.
Between periods, I agreed with Henrik Lundqvist that they didn’t have to panic. They were only down a goal. They’ve proven they’re capable of scoring. A comeback team all season, Lundqvist made a good point about not taking too many risks early. Play their game.
While showing former backup Antti Raanta being interviewed after the Carolina Game Seven win over Boston, Lundqvist remarked, ‘Stop the puck,’ in reference to Raanta in the closing moments of a 3-2 win. It was funny.
When the third period started, I was prepared for the worst. Especially due to the quick start from the Pens. They kept attacking and looking for the knockout punch.
Luckily, it never came. I couldn’t believe how quiet The Garden sounded. I wasn’t alone.
With not nearly enough happening during the first half of the period except for a mindless Panarin high-sticking minor on Letang that thankfully was followed by a Carter trip on Zibanejad, I pleaded for Gallant to make a line switch.
It’s not often that happens. The move sparked the team. It proved that he has a pulse. He had to notice how ineffective the top two lines were. It worked.
The miracle happened. On good forecheck pressure from Lafreniere behind the Pens’ net, he got into a battle with Pettersson. I never noticed that his helmet came off during play. But the Pens still had a chance to get out of trouble.
Instead, Copp competed hard along the boards to win a key battle. He then came out with the puck and centered for Zibanejad.
When he fired the shot, it felt like I was watching something out of a movie. I can’t describe it. It was like an out of body experience. When the puck went in, I went into shock. I couldn’t believe it.
Zibanejad’s clutch tying goal came with 5:44 remaining in the third period. Copp drew the only assist. It wouldn’t have been possible without the work of Lafreniere. To Sullivan’s contention that it was intentional, is he kidding? Have some class. Crosby did afterwards.
Gallant continued to mix up his lines. A funny thing happened late. His team started getting more shots on net. They finally simplified their approach.
As they got closer to the end of regulation, Miller made a nice defensive play behind his net. The Rangers checked better at the conclusion. Rust couldn’t get a last second attempt on Shesterkin due to that attention to detail.
It went to overtime. Similar to Game One, it needed a dramatic conclusion to decide a winner. At that point, I was a mess. Not literally. But think basket case. Not the classic Green Day song from the Dookie album. But it applied.
Anxiety sucks. I tried to laugh it off. Even after taking a pill, I was shaking at the start of OT. I don’t think I expected it to reach that point.
Playoff hockey hits different. To think the final pair of Game Seven’s needed sudden death. The Flames won over the Stars later when Johnny Gaudreau finally solved Jake Oettinger, who was remarkable. He made 64 saves. Wow.
In overtime, the Pens got a couple of chances early from secondary players. I yelled at the TV that if they were going to lose, let it be a star player.
After two nervous saves from Shesterkin, Miller made the play of the game. Able to anticipate a pass at the Ranger blue line, he stole the puck and broke in on Jarry. McGinn was forced to hold Miller leading to a penalty 2:55 in.
Following a timeout by Gallant, out came the vaunted top unit. It hadn’t gotten it done all game. It didn’t look like they would flip the script.
To the Pens’ credit, they limited them to two shots with Jarry stopping a long Panarin try and then making a good save on Strome. But on some good hustle that kept the puck alive, they finally worked the puck up to Fox. He then passed to Panarin.
With time winding down on the five-on-four, he waited and then finally fired a wrist shot that beat Jarry high glove at 4:44 of overtime. After it was scored, I was motionless. I couldn’t believe it. They won!
I had no energy left. Maybe that is true amongst our chat group on Twitter. I mean this was an exhausting game to watch. No wonder it took me so long to recover and finally recap it.
When they needed it most, the power play came through when it mattered most. They showed enough patience and poise. Zibanejad also won three draws. He was instrumental. He got the secondary assist.
For as much criticism as I gave Fox and Panarin, they stayed in the fight to help this team win its first series in five long years. It didn’t come easy. It wasn’t supposed to.
I’m so proud of this team. Yes. They were outplayed by a tough Pens team. They caught breaks due to Jarry not being available along with Dumoulin missing the final six games. Plus Crosby missing Game Six.
However, that’s part of the playoffs. Don’t forget they were without Barclay Goodrow after Game One. They won’t have him back for the Hurricanes series. He’s a key player.
They don’t come back from a 3-1 series deficit for a third straight time in their playoff history without Lindgren being a warrior and Motte returning. That was huge.
It isn’t possible without Zibanejad and Kreider stepping up in the final two games. Shesterkin was better in the last two with him returning to Vezina form last night. Finally, he made the difference in the goalie department.
Since this is already exceedingly long, I want to thank the readers. Any feedback is greatly appreciated. This was a joy to do. Playoff hockey is back. Wow.