Tuesday night in Pittsburgh, the New York Rangers accomplished something unprecedented in the 88-year history of their Original Six franchise, coming back all the way from a 1-3 series deficit to win in Game 7.
The Pittsburgh Penguins, meanwhile, did something that’s become all too familiar since their 2009 Stanley Cup championship, bowing out of the postseason for the fifth consecutive year to a lower-seeded team.
After getting off to slow starts and failing to eliminate the Rangers in Game 5 at home or Game 6 on the road, the Penguins came to play Tuesday. But, by taking the series to a one-game, winner-take-all Game 7, they put themselves in a situation where a bad bounce could end their season – or where a future Hall of Fame goaltender could do his best impersonation of a brick wall.
Henrik Lundqvist, to the surprise of absolutely no one, did just that.
The Rangers netminder was 4-0 in his last four Game 7 appearances, with an 0.75 goals-against average. Tuesday, he became the first goalie in NHL history to win five consecutive Game 7’s, stopping 35 of the 36 shots he faced in New York’s 2-1 win.
Over the Rangers’ remarkable three-game comeback, Lundqvist faced 105 shots and stopped 102 of them.
“I knew we probably weren’t going to score three or four in the third period but, certainly, one goal is not out of the realm,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “We threw a lot of rubber at him; we tried it the right way. We had guys diving and putting their faces into the crease, trying to will it into the net. It wouldn’t go. He was good. These tight playoff games, it comes down to those types of things – one little play, one little inch, one save.”
“It’s just disappointing,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “Tonight was one of our better games; we worked hard and generated some good chances but, unfortunately, didn’t find a way to win. Ultimately, the [last] two we lost hurt us a lot. We put ourselves in this position.”
As a team, New York also did an impressive job of collapsing around Lundqvist, keeping Pittsburgh mostly to the perimeter and limiting quality chances.
“They protected the net,” Crosby said. “They boxed out well in front, had guys sit back a lot, really protected their blue line and forced us to dump it. But, even with that, it’s the playoffs. You’ve got to find ways to generate.”
Rangers forward Brian Boyle got the first goal of the game past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury just 5:25 in, continuing the trend of the team that scored first winning all seven contests. Penguins winger Jussi Jokinen – the team’s leading goal-scorer in the postseason – got his seventh early in the second to tie it. But, ironically, it was New York’s power play, which tied an NHL record earlier in the series by going 0-for-36, where Brad Richards cashed in a few minutes later with the eventual game-winner.
To a man, the Penguins pointed to Game 5 as the point where they started to lose their grip on the series.
“Certainly a disappointing effort on our end,” Niskanen said. “If you’re not going to win that game – it’s an opportunity to win and close out the series when you have all the momentum but, if you’re not, you’d better put a dent in their team at least. Make a statement with how you play, tire them out, do something. Game 5 was a really big missed opportunity, and then momentum starts to turn.”
“When you go up 3-1, [then] they played their best game in Game 5 … right here in our building,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “Not being able to come up with the knockout punch there, you look at that as probably the biggest turning point in the series. You go back [to New York] for Game 6, they’re at home and win again to move the series on.”
Not even Crosby, a proven big-game player on some of hockey’s biggest stages, could come through in Game 7, ending a frustrating postseason in which he had nine points but only one goal through 13 games and frequently looked to be off his game, despite insisting that he was not battling an injury.
“Obviously, I would have liked to score more and contribute more, but it wasn’t a lack of effort or competing or anything like that,” Crosby said. “I’d love to tear it up every series but it’s not always the case. It doesn’t make it any easier, I’ll tell you that. It’s tough losing as it is but, when you’re not able to contribute as much as you’d like, it’s even tougher.”
After five consecutive seasons of underachieving expectations, the Penguins organization has big questions to answer this offseason – including whether Bylsma and his staff, general manager Ray Shero, and the players on the roster are the right men for their jobs.
“Our ultimate goal is to win the Stanley Cup, and we haven’t done that in five seasons,” Bylsma said. “Twenty minutes post battling for a Game 7 right to the bitter end, I haven’t contemplated the price it’s going to be or [thought about] anything toward the future yet.”
“You work all year to put yourself in a home-ice advantage to win a Game 7 in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and we didn’t score at big moments in big games,” said forward James Neal, who managed only four points (2G, 2A) in 13 playoff games. “It falls on us. We just didn’t get it done; that’s the bottom line.”