Taking three minor penalties in the first seven minutes and change of Game 2 wasn’t exactly the start the Pittsburgh Penguins were looking for.
The home team came out with the energy that eluded them in the first period of Game 1 – perhaps overenthusiastically so, as they tried to avoid taking an 0-2 series deficit to New York Monday – and, by the halfway point of the period, had been forced to kill off penalties for goalie interference, roughing and boarding.
But with each kill, the Penguins seemed to gain momentum. They frustrated a Rangers power play that, by the end of Game 2, would go 0 for its last 29 opportunities. They got their players, their goaltender and their crowd focused and engaged early on.
“It’s tough to say that, because we do have to kill off three penalties; you feel like you’re behind the eight ball,” said head coach Dan Bylsma. “But our killers answered the bell; I think [the Rangers] only had three shots through those penalty kills. They did an outstanding job, and I think we were able to gain momentum from there.
“That was a good hockey game from us, a hard-fought game throughout, and maybe the PKers set the tone for us, with them stepping over the boards in those situations.”
For much of the game, it looked like Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was prepared to steal this one for his teammates, who were outshot, 35-22, and finally starting to show some of the wear of playing their fourth game in six days, dating back to round one against the Philadelphia Flyers.
“You expect him to be great, and he was tonight,” Bylsma said. “We know that’s what we’re going to be dealing with, and it’s not going to happen with one shot; it’s not going to happen with one play. We have to go after it, we have to go after him with the puck and shooting and rebounds.”
Pittsburgh finally broke the scoreless contest midway through the second period, when defenseman Kris Letang put a shot on goal from the right circle. Forward Chris Kunitz was crashing the net in hopes of deflecting the puck or putting home a rebound, but didn’t have to as Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi tried to poke it away and, instead, put it past his netminder.
“It wasn’t a pretty play; get a puck to the net and redirect it,” Bylsma said. “It was that type of game against [Lundqvist] where we knew we were going to have to fight and scratch and claw to get one by him and, luckily, we did.”
The Penguins continued to dominate the puck-possession game, but Lundqvist kept his team in a 1-0 contest until close to the end.
With just over five minutes remaining, the Rangers nearly sprung dangerous forward Brad Richards on a breakaway, but Pittsburgh blueliners Paul Martin and Letang combined to strip him of the puck and send play in the other direction. Then Rangers winger Derek Dorsett took a boarding call, forward Jussi Jokinen put home James Neal’s rebound on the power play, and the Penguins had the insurance goal they needed, with star center Evgeni Malkin adding an empty-netter in the final minute.
That was all the scoring the Penguins would need with their own goaltender, Marc-Andre Fleury, shutting the door, not facing quite the quantity or quality of chances as Lundqvist did but coming up with the big saves when his team needed them. Fleury earned his seventh career postseason shutout, taking sole possession of the franchise leaderboard in that category, and his 50th career playoff win.
“You can’t overlook his part in the penalty kill early on in the game,” Bylsma said. “I don’t think he got credit for one of the great saves he made on [an early power-play] shot through a defenseman that was high. I think just the calmness and how he made his saves and how he was in the net made it feel like it wasn’t as many good chances, but there were a couple flurries where the puck was in the crease in the third period that I thought he was real big on. He deserved the shutout tonight.”
And the Penguins earned the win after finally putting together the complete, 60-minute effort they’d been talking about – but falling short of executing – through the postseason thus far.
“To come tonight and really bring that full 60 minutes – I don’t know if we’ve had a good 60 minutes yet, so that’s a big building block for us,” said center Brandon Sutter.
In another encouraging sign, two of Pittsburgh’s biggest stars chose Sunday to have their strongest games of the postseason.
Letang not only collected the game-winning goal and two assists but led the Penguins’ offensive attack with his skating and speed, won puck battles against some of the Rangers’ biggest scoring threats, and came up with crucial shot blocks and clears.
And then there was captain Sidney Crosby, maligned throughout the playoffs for a goalless streak that’s now reached 13 postseason games. Sunday, he did everything but put a puck in the net, registering six shots on goal and dominating with moves that, for the first time in the playoffs, looked a lot like the Sidney Crosby who ran away with the regular-season scoring title and is almost certain to be named league MVP next month.
“It was great to see,” said forward Lee Stempniak. “Sid was moving really well, made a lot of moves, had a lot of chances. [Goals are] coming; you can tell.”
The teams now head to Madison Square Garden for two, beginning with Monday’s Game 3 where the Rangers face their second back-to-back situation in seven days. The Penguins will hope to capitalize on that by bringing another complete effort and matching the desperation they showed Sunday.
“I thought, to a man, we were extremely good tonight,” Byslma said. “It’s hard-fought, a one-goal game, pretty much on the table until the end of the game. That’s a huge win for us.”