It took the Penguins all of 1:57 for their bottom six to find the net in Game 3, with forward Brock McGinn breaking the ice on a centering attempt that was at first waved off for the net being dislodged, then reversed when officials determined Rangers defenseman Patrik Nemeth was responsible for the dislodging.
Pittsburgh’s next two goals came from their second power play unit, from bottom-six forwards Jeff Carter and Evan Rodrigues. Rodrigues, who had a career year on the strength of his first half but struggled to score down the stretch, added another for good measure, padding the score to 4-1.
“Definitely [felt good],” Rodrigues said. “Anytime you can help the team win, you’re going to be happy.
“It was a great start for us. I think we were being really physical, playing simple and all on the same page. We were getting in on the forecheck and controlling the puck. We were hanging on to it down low and when we had lanes to the net, we were getting bodies there and putting pucks there. When you’re playing simple hockey like that, it’s easy to read off of everybody, and we got the bounces.”
Surely a three-goal lead would be enough to give third-string goaltender Louis Domingue the support he needed, right? Not so fast.
By the end of a disastrous second period, the Penguins had blown the 4-1 lead and were staring down a brand-new game with a 4-4 tie to start the third. And they were lucky it wasn’t worse.
The Penguins looked unprepared for a big pushback from the Rangers, who shook things up to start the second by replacing likely Vezina winner Igor Shesterkin with backup Alexander Georgiev. Now it was New York pushing the attack, and the Penguins playing on their heels. That led to a period where New York dominated puck possession and, with it, shots (18-7), scoring chances (12-7) and high-danger chances (6-2).
The Rangers pressured the Penguins into mistakes, and no defensive pairing lapsed as spectacularly as the mismatched Mike Matheson and Kris Letang, two offensive-minded D playing together while Brian Dumoulin, a stay-at-home type who’s a better complement to Letang, is dealing with an injury.
By the time the Rangers scored their fourth goal, a shorthanded tally by Andrew Copp, the Penguins could only hope to ride out the remaining four minutes of the period without further damage and get back to the locker room to collect themselves.
“Obviously we didn’t like the second period,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “It was the worst period we’ve played in the series. We got away from the game that’s brought us success. That’s just the human element of sports.”
The third didn’t start out especially promising, either, with Evgeni Malkin taking an early tripping penalty. The Penguins managed to kill that off, then had to deal with another offensive zone penalty when forward Danton Heinen took one for slashing.
But the Penguins’ penalty kill, among the league’s best for most of the regular season, stepped up, killing both of the Rangers’ third-period opportunities to go a perfect 3-for-3 on the night.
“A bit of a rollercoaster for sure,” Heinen said. “You hate to be in the box; you hate to take penalties. But the kill was unbelievable tonight, and Louis back there might have been our best killer. The guys battled for me.”
“In the playoffs you certainly win and lose games by the special teams,” Domingue said. “We were really focused on winning that battle tonight, and I thought our PK really gave us momentum, especially in the third.”
Heinen’s rollercoaster ride would continue on a more positive track, starting in the Penguins’ end shortly after his penalty expired, when Domingue made possibly the biggest of his 32 saves of the night on Rangers star Artemi Panarin.
Moments later, as play went the other way, Heinen found himself in front of the net with the puck and put it past Georgiev to give the Penguins the last lead they’d need. His go-ahead goal made the score 5-4 with nine minutes remaining and, though Domingue had to make several big saves down the stretch to preserve the win, the Penguins largely seized control of the game with a relentless forecheck, preventing the puck from leaving the Rangers’ zone as the clock ticked down.
Empty-net goals from Jake Guentzel and Jeff Carter made the 7-4 final look much less like the slender margin of victory it actually was. For the Penguins, though, recovering from the second period to take the 2-1 series lead was victory enough.
“What might be the most rewarding part for me in winning this game is that, when you give up a three-goal lead and allow a team back into the game in the fashion that we did, a lot of teams don’t recover from that,” Sullivan said. “I think it speaks volumes for the character of the group and the leadership we have that we were able to move by it.
“I thought our penalty kill did a great job at the beginning of the period; it gave the bench a big boost. And then we got back to trying to play the game that has brought us success.”
Having accomplished that in Game 3, the Penguins head into Game 4 Monday with plenty of reason to be confident. Not that that’s anything particularly new for this veteran club.
“I think our team has already had a quiet confidence about it,” Sullivan said. “I think our guys believe we can win; I really do. And if we play the game a certain way and we have the discipline to stay the course through 60 minutes, we believe we’re a competitive hockey team [and] can play with any team in the league.”
“We believe in ourselves,” Domingue said. “Once you enter the dance, I think any team can win. Maybe we came in a little bit as the underdog, but we certainly feel like we belong, and we showed it tonight.”