Last night in Madison Square Garden, hockey once again showed why it is the most exciting game ever played.
The New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins met for what was simply a midseason match up at the start of a busy February. However, what developed in the Rangers’ 4-3 shootout loss was a story – one with successes, failures, animosity and an unexpected hero.
Things began poorly for Pittsburgh. They started the game looking slow, perhaps rusty from the week-long All Star break. Almost inevitably, Brandon Prust scored just 3:52 into the period on the Rangers’ first shot of the game. This could have been an early death for the Pens, but instead, it woke them up. Midway through the period, the Penguins they had seven shots on goal to the Rangers’ one. However, Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist did not let anything get by, but his team also failed to capitalize on two power play opportunities.
Overall, they would only score once out of five opportunities with the man-advantage.
“Our power play stunk,” Rangers coach John Tortorella said bluntly. “It was ridiculous, so we have to change it.”
The second period was explosive. Artem Anisimov (with help from Dubinsky and Marian Gaborik) made it 2-0 just 1:41 into the middle stanza.
Though it was still early, things looked bleak for Pittsburgh. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin were still missing from the lineup, and center Mark Letestu, who sustained a lower body injury during the morning skate, was out as well. Forward Arron Asham left the game with an upper body injury.
Meanwhile, the Rangers had just gotten an important chunk of their offense back – Brandon Dubinsky had recovered from a stress fracture in his tibia and Ryan Callahan’s hand finally healed after Pens’ defenseman Kris Letang hit it with a shot 19 games ago. Dan Girardi also returned to the Rangers’ defense after suffering a muscle strain.
Could the diminishing Penguins team generate the offense needed against the renewed Rangers?
“I’d say we’ve been dealing with (adversity) and we deal with it again tonight,” said Pens’ Head Coach Dan Bylsma. “But even having dealt with some of the adversity in the game we get down two-nothing in a tough situation and our guys keep battling back.”
And battle they did.
Deryk Engelland and Prust fought, heavy punches flying. Tension was rising. Then the Penguins got a power play, and it took AHL call-up Dustin Jeffrey only 10 seconds to score.
“There was a lot of ice time available,” said Jeffrey, attributing his success to doors opened by a lack of centers. “That’s probably the most I’ve played all season.”
The Pens could just begin to taste a win. They wanted more. Mike Rupp and Chris Kunitz helped dig Pittsburgh out of the two-goal hole and put them in the lead, 3-2. Players across the team were rising out of the offensive hole and contributing. Maxime Talbot and the trio of Engelland, Zybnek Michalek and Brooks Orpik – who aren’t known of their offense – logged assists.
The Rangers were upset, and it showed. They skated with urgency and determination.
“It’s tough. We’re at our best when we have leads,” said Dubinksy. “Here at home, we’ve got to find a way to lock those down and win a game.”
With less than five minutes remaining in the second, Jordan Staal let the tension get to him and made the mistake of punching Prust directly in the face during a scrum. Prust hit the ice, and Staal was ejected from the game for unsportsmanlike conduct, leaving the Pens with a five-minute penalty and without the last of their leading forwards.
The two coaches, of course, viewed the situation differently.
“I wasn’t particularly fond of the call,” Bylsma said. “Certainly it was a scrum, and both guys were taking their shots and I’m not sure the penalty was warranted.”
“I think he knew that he made a mistake there,” he said.
Callahan’s resulting power play goal 13 seconds before the buzzer sent the two teams into the third with a tie.
“We definitely needed one on that on that power play, having a five-minute. It was a big goal heading into the third period,” Callahan said.
The Rangers were aggressive offensively in the third, but despite two power plays and a drastic lead in shots on goal (11-3) nothing clicked. Pittsburgh efforts were focused on defense. This was a good idea, as Tortorella attributes the Pens’ success largely to their defensive skill.
“We struggled a little bit with their speed through the neutral zone,” he said. “They’ve got a defense, I think it’s probably one of the best in the league as far as transition, and that’s where I thought we struggled through a lot of the game.
“We held them, I think, to six scoring chances throughout the game…we defended well.”
The stalemate continued through overtime, during which the Rangers only fired two shots and the Penguins one.
The crowd was on its feet for the shootout. Lundqvist and Pens’ goalie Marc-Andre Fleury were walls.
“(Lundqvist and Fleury) are probably two of the best in the league in the shootout,” said Tortorella.
Then, in the seventh round, Bylsma sent out Dustin Jeffrey, and the promising player scored the game-winning goal, earning the official first star of the game and the unofficial role of hero for the night.
“I hate losing in a shootout,” said Lundqvist. “As a goalie, I played a big part there. I made the first move on their goal. I’m disappointed.”
“I tried to stay patient and not move too fast,” Fleury said. “It worked out all right.”
In the end, both teams had highs and lows, and both teams fought hard until the last possible moment. As always, when such a dramatic game ends so quickly, the final moments seem too brief and too simple.
As Tortorella puts it, “Fleury just made one more save than Hank.”