Over the past two games, it feels like something is starting to click for the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A team that’s looked disinterested at times since the Olympic break has its players routinely sacrificing bodies to block shots and break up opposing scoring chances. The penalty kill is perfect so far in their second-round series, not only frustrating the New York Rangers’ long-suffering power play – it’s now 0 for its last 34 chances – but gaining momentum and energy from a task that can create tired hockey players.
Their goaltender, who renewed questions about his big-game ability and mental toughness with a rough end to Game 4 of the Penguins’ first-round series against Columbus, has posted shutouts on back-to-back nights, joining Curtis Joseph (2001) and his counterpart in this series, Henrik Lundqvist (2013) as the last three goaltenders to accomplish that in the postseason.
Their star offensive defenseman has played his best two games of the playoffs, joining his teammates in a commitment to making sound, smart defensive decisions. And their captain, who may or may not be playing with an injury, followed up his six-shot performance in Game 2 with only one in Game 3 – the one that, after 13 goalless games, finally went in.
After the Rangers forced goaltender Lundqvist to keep them in Sunday’s Game 2 while being outshot 35-22, the ice was tilted in the other direction Monday as the New York rung up high-quantity, high-quality scoring chances, outshooting Pittsburgh 35-15.
“They came with a desperate effort,” said defenseman Matt Niskanen. “Flower [goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury] is making big saves when they do make a play, controlling rebounds on the ones that they do get. We’ve been trying to tie up sticks, trying to get the puck going the other way as quickly as we can. Just win that puck, win that race.
“If you’re sitting back on your heels and they keep coming, it’s only a matter of time. I thought we did a good enough job tonight where we pushed the pace the other way, and we were opportunistic.”
The Penguins were, indeed, opportunistic, with both goals in their 2-0 Game 3 win coming on breakaways following penalty kills.
Early in the second period, shortly after Pittsburgh finished killing off a double-minor to forward James Neal for high-sticking the Rangers’ Jesper Fast in the mouth, defenseman Robert Bortuzzo – a big blueliner known more for physicality than offensive prowess – got a long pass up ice to spring captain Sidney Crosby on the break that ended his long goal drought.
“Good instincts and good vision,” Niskanen said. “I didn’t even see Sid breaking for that open ice. The puck popped out to Borts and he not only spotted him, he put it out there, hit him in stride on the forehead, and Sid was off to the races.”
Later in the second frame, forward Jussi Jokinen provided another example of seizing momentum from a successful kill, coming out of the box after serving two minutes for holding the stick, intercepting a pass and flying up ice to give his team the two-goal cushion.
“[The penalty kills] gave our team a lot of energy,” Niskanen said. “You start getting those consecutive penalty kills and that really brings a lot of confidence to our bench. You feel like you start rolling.”
Starting goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury was also rolling, responding to his critics with his second shutout in as many days as he stopped all 35 Rangers shots in often-impressive fashion.
“It feels great to see him having success like that,” said defenseman Kris Letang, whose renewed defensive commitment saw him earn two shot blocks and two takeaways on the night. “He’s been awesome all year but, especially in the last few games, he’s been our best player.”
“Just solid,” Crosby said. “He looks really poised in there and confident. We didn’t want to sit back in the third [period]; we were probably guilty of that … we didn’t generate a lot offensively and, when he was tested, he made some big saves. It allowed us to be pretty confident in playing the way we needed to to close out the game.”
With Pittsburgh holding the 2-1 series lead, both teams will have the opportunity for some downtime Tuesday before Wednesday’s Game 4 at Madison Square Garden. The Penguins will hold an optional practice, while the Rangers will be off after playing a grueling five games in the past seven nights.
“I think [the schedule] is a factor,” Niskanen said. “They’re a fast team, they play an up-tempo [style] and they showed that at times tonight, but maybe not quite the stamina they usually have.”
“We were forced to play a stupid schedule, and I’m real proud of how our guys handled it,” said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault. “We put our best foot forward in each and every game. Now we’ve got a full day to recover, and we’ll get right back at it on Wednesday.”
“I don’t know what they’re going to say in their dressing room, but the nature of the thing [will be] ‘we can’t lose two in a row at home,’” Niskanen said. “I anticipate they’re going to empty the tanks on Wednesday night and we have to be ready for it.
“We might have to survive a period of time where they’re really coming after us, but we’ll try to find a way to steal another one on the road.”