The Pittsburgh Penguins fired 40 shots Sunday at the New York Rangers and goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, who was a game-day decision with a stiff neck. They controlled the play for the better part of the game, too, outshooting New York 29-14 over the first two periods.
But a sequence of two, ill-timed penalties early in the third – one undisciplined, one unfortunate – was all the Rangers needed to take over what had been a 1-1 game, and undo all that Pittsburgh had done well up to that point.
Not even the NHL’s best penalty kill could overcome a five-minute elbowing major and game misconduct to forward Matt Cooke, followed by a double-minor for high sticking to defenseman Matt Niskanen, that gave the Rangers nearly two minutes on a five-on-three.
“We took a five-minute major and, any time you’re taking a penalty like that, you’re putting your team in a tough spot,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “It’s an undisciplined play. And, up to that point, I thought the game was played pretty well by our team. We did a lot of good things and wanted to continue to play the way we were, and that put us in a situation where it changed the game.”
The penalty kill started off well enough, with Penguins forward Chris Kunitz creating a neutral-zone turnover early in Cooke’s major and coming the other way to score a shorthanded goal. That gave the Penguins an unlikely, 2-1 lead and what should have been a big emotional lift.
“We needed to get some emotion,” Kunitz said. “Our power play hasn’t been very good, so we have to win the special teams battle. Our PK’s been great, and to be able to get a shorthanded one … I thought we were going to go good.”
Jordan Staal, who also worked on that penalty-killing unit, had the same feeling. “I thought we were sitting pretty for a while there,” he said. “Kuni made a great play on the PK and got the goal, and that was a big momentum shift for us. [But] it just went downhill from there.”
That downturn began with Niskanen’s high stick, which opened a gash across Rangers forward Ryan Callahan’s nose, and Pittsburgh faced a two-man disadvantage for 1:42.
“I tried to clear [the puck], and I think he lifted my stick and I tried to tie his up, and there was no stick there. I got him in the face and he was bleeding,” Niskanen said. “That’s poor discipline on my part; I’ve got to keep my stick on the ice. And it’s bad timing because it gives them two minutes on a five-on-three, and you can’t put the team down in that situation.”
“It was an unfortunate penalty on a hockey play,” Bylsma said. “That was a tough break.”
New York’s Marion Gaborik got on the board before the five-on-three expired, and then – fittingly – it was Callahan who cashed in again, 11 seconds later, on the five-on-four.
“You can’t [give them] two minutes of five-on-three,” Kunitz said. “They have some good players, good offensive skill.”
Just like that, the Rangers were up, 3-2, and never looked back, scoring twice more late in the game to put an exclamation point on the come-from-behind win.
“Five-on-five, I thought we played really well. We were getting good looks, good chances, controlled the play for the most part, didn’t give them much,” Niskanen said. “Then we kind of gave them the momentum with their power play.”
And now the Penguins – who have gradually been getting players back into their injury-depleted lineup – are going to lose another in what is certain to be Cooke’s second suspension in as many months.
“Personally, I didn’t see [the play],” said Staal, Cooke’s frequent linemate. “But obviously it was enough to give him a five, so I would assume it’s not a good thing.”
Cooke offers a mix of grit and skill that makes him valuable to his team, but he’s also earned a reputation as a repeat offender when it comes to headshots, the league’s touchiest issue. And the elbow delivered to the head of Rangers rookie Ryan McDonagh in this contest is just the latest in Cooke’s controversial hit parade.
The player’s lack of discipline also puts his organization – particularly owner Mario Lemieux, who has called for greater discipline for offending players, especially repeat offenders, to “provide a meaningful deterrence and effectively clean up the game” – in an awkward situation.
How the Penguins will deal with Cooke internally is yet to be determined, but the team fully expects to be without him for Monday’s game in Detroit and beyond.
“I don’t think you can talk about eliminating headshots from the game, as we have as an organization, and not expect that to be examined, what looks to be contact right to the head on the play,” Bylsma said. “The league will look at that and treat it as such.”
On the upside, Pittsburgh has another gritty agitator type ready to fill Cooke’s skates, as winger Arron Asham has been cleared to return from his concussion and may join the lineup in Detroit. And the Penguins will head into that game hoping to do the same things they did well – for the first two-plus periods, anyway – against the Rangers.
“I thought we defended well, we didn’t give New York much, and we were able to get to the offensive zone,” Bylsma said. “We’re playing our second in a day and a half, so it’s going to be a turnaround in short order, but we know we’re going to be playing a good team in a tough place, and we’ll focus on playing exactly the way we did for a majority of tonight.”
“Detroit’s been playing really well, and it’s going to be another big challenge for our team,” Staal said. “I thought tonight we did a lot of great things five-on-five; it’s just that our special teams have got to be better, and hopefully we can turn it around. We saw them in the Finals twice; it’s a rivalry, I think. You don’t want to lose against that team.”