In 16 opportunities in the history of the franchise, the New York Rangers have never come back to win a playoff series in which they trailed 1-3. Tuesday in Pittsburgh, they’ll get the chance to do just that.
The Rangers, who appeared to have nothing left in the tank after their third consecutive loss in Game 4, rallied to tie the series Sunday, beating the Penguins 3-1. They’ve rallied around teammate Marty St. Louis, who played Game 5 a day after the unexpected passing of his mother and Game 6 on Mother’s Day. They’ve rallied around each other.
“I think, as a team, we’ve come together and realized what we need to do to have success against this team,” said Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “They’re so skilled that, if you give them something, they’re going to try to take it. You just have to respect that. At the same time, you have to believe in what you’re doing. The last two games, our mindset has been really good.”
Suddenly, all the pressure in the series has shifted to the Penguins – who, for the second consecutive game, came out looking like they weren’t prepared to play. By 6:25 in, New York had jumped out to a 2-0 lead, with St. Louis opening the scoring just 3:34 in and Carl Hagelin putting in a backhander less than three minutes later that Pittsburgh netminder Marc-Andre Fleury probably should have stopped.
But this wasn’t about Fleury, who stood nearly as tall for his club as Lundqvist did for his the rest of the way. It was about the Penguins putting themselves in a tough position from the start.
“It’s pretty clear; we’ve got to show up and, the last two games, our starts have hurt us,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, himself a significant topic of conversation with nine points but only one goal in 12 playoff games, one shot in Game 6, and a downturn in his overall play that’s hard to explain if, as he and the team maintain, he is not injured.
“We talked about it, we knew it was something we had to improve and we didn’t. And we paid the price for it.”
By the end of the first period, Pittsburgh had gotten on the board with a fluky goal credited to Brandon Sutter and was edging New York in shots, 15-14, after being dominated, 11-2, in the early going. But Lundqvist was nearly perfect – stopping 36 of the 37 shots he faced on the night. And, with an insurance goal from Derick Brassard in the waning minutes of the second period, the Rangers had all they would need to send the series back to CONSOL Energy Center for a winner-take-all Game 7.
“I think, once we got down, you really saw how hard we can push,” said Penguins defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We were really trying to be aggressive, just pressure them all over the ice. We got zone time and some chances because of it, a couple power plays because of it.”
The power play couldn’t cash in, however, going 0-for-4 on the night. The Penguins are just 1-for-19 in the series with the man-advantage.
“The first [power play] tonight, we did some really good things,” Niskanen said. “We had a lot of movement, kept a couple pucks alive, had some shots, recovered them. When you have [Chris Kunitz] standing in front like that, you have the chance at a couple rebounds. We were doing the right things. The next couple, we didn’t enter the zone quite as clean; they started pressuring a little bit more.
“Bottom line is, it comes down to results.”
Much as it had earlier in the series, before the Rangers ended an 0-for-36 stretch without a power-play goal, the Penguins’ penalty kill provided more momentum than the power play. They held the Rangers 0-for-6 with the man-advantage and generated scoring chances of their own, including shorthanded breakaways by Marcel Goc and Brian Gibbons.
“The penalty killers did a great job – two shorthanded breakaways and a couple other rushes that didn’t amount to anything, but they were pushing that way,” Niskanen said. “That gave us momentum and could’ve really swung the game if we buried one of those. Lundqvist had a couple nice saves to keep the score what it was.”
Now, after squandering two opportunities to eliminate the Rangers, the Penguins will face elimination right along with them.
“Nothing matters but the next game,” Crosby said. “We can’t change it; we’re in the situation that we’re in and we’ve got to be at our best when it means the most. It’s pretty clear and simple when there’s a Game 7; you’ve got to be at your best to give yourself a chance.”
“Right now, we need everything from everybody,” said Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma. “We go up 3-1 and now they’ve answered back and we need everyone’s best for Game 7. We haven’t been there at all times in the last few games. We have to be there now, and Sid’s going to be leading the way.”