No. 1 goalie Tristan Jarry, after waiting all year to redeem himself in the playoffs, couldn’t start. No.2 Casey DeSmith couldn’t finish. No. 3 Louis Domingue came in cold in the second overtime, fresh from a meal of spicy pork and broccoli, and got the win.
That was the most surreal storyline in a game full of fascinating ones. But the most important takeaway from the Pittsburgh Penguins’ series-opening, 4-3 win in triple OT over the New York Rangers just might be that the underdog Penguins have reason for hope.
When the puck dropped on Game 1 at the World’s Most Famous Arena, the Penguins knew they’d have to withstand an early storm. A passionate Rangers fanbase had been waiting five years for the playoffs to return to Madison Square Garden. And the Rangers themselves looked more than ready for the moment.
The Penguins spent the first period being largely manhandled. They had few answers for the Rangers’ speed, their forecheck and, especially, their physicality. Sophomore forward Alexis Lafrenière established the tone early with a high hit on Pittsburgh defenseman John Marino, and former Penguin Ryan Reaves maintained it, with hit after hit on Pittsburgh skaters leaving them looking rattled and intimidated.
In the biggest blow, with just over a minute remaining in the opening frame, Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren leveled high-profile Penguins trade deadline acquisition Rickard Rickell with a high hit that took him out of the game.
Ryan Lindgren got a 5-min major for a check to the head of Rickard Rakell. After review, the refs dropped this hit down to a 2-min penalty for roughing.
“It’s a playoff against one of our rivals,” said forward Bryan Rust. “We knew it was going to be a good, fast, hard-hitting game, and that’s exactly what we got.”
Down 2-0 and one forward, Pittsburgh’s playoff experience started to shine through. A different club started to emerge a few minutes into the second period, with the Penguins dominating puck possession, shots, scoring chances and high-danger chances through the frame. The line of Rust, captain Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel kickstarted the comeback, with Guentzel scoring two to draw the Penguins even.
After trading special teams goals from Chris Kreider (shorthanded) and Rust (power play), the teams were deadlocked, 3-3, at the end of the second. The Penguins took 25 shots in that period, making some franchise playoff history.
“I think we did a good job of getting on our toes,” Rust said. “Playing in people’s faces, causing some turnovers, spending some good time in the O zone, and we were able to get a couple goals.”
“The Rangers had a real good start; they come out with a ton of energy,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “And I thought our team responded really well. We kept our composure, and we slowly got momentum. I thought the second period we were terrific, and from then on out I thought we played a real solid game.”
The Penguins almost didn’t make it to overtime, but challenged an apparent goal by Kaapo Kakko in the waning minutes of regulation and got it overturned on goalie interference.
After review, the goal is overturned so Sullivan is 1-0 on challenges in the playoffs.
Already missing Jarry with a broken foot, the Penguins were getting a strong game from DeSmith, who held his own opposite the Rangers’ star netminder Igor Shesterkin. DeSmith stopped 48 of 51 shots in 81:29 of work – into a second overtime – but suddenly called for a stop in play and went off the ice, limping as he went down the runway.
The crease now belonged to Domingue, who played just two games for the Penguins this season, going 1-1 with a 2.02 GAA and .952 save percentage. He would enter the game in the second overtime after having watched four-plus periods of hockey from behind the net. Next goal wins. No pressure.
“I saw [DeSmith] going to the bench and I wasn’t sure why they blew the whistle,” Domingue said. “It happens that I knew both of the referees, and I honestly thought they were joking with me when they said I have to go in. After that you just go out and play. It’s crazy, but I guess that’s my life. It’s hockey.”
“I thought Louis did a terrific job,” Sullivan said. “That’s not an easy task. It’s hard enough in a regular game, not to mention the extra time that we played, so he was sitting on the bench for a long time. He made a couple of key saves for us early on right away. I thought he did a terrific job under real tough circumstances. I don’t think I’ve ever been through that experience before.”
Domingue stopped 14 shots in the second overtime and three in the third before the Penguins got the win. Kasperi Kapanen, playing one of his best games as a Penguin, got the puck to Marino at the point, and Evgeni Malkin tipped it past Shesterkin for just his second career OT playoff goal, and first since 2009.
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“We played a physical, hard game,” Malkin said. “We give credit to New York’s team; they played unbelievable, too. We know it’s not easy, and the fans are unbelievable here. It’s fun to play here.”
Between Crosby keying the comeback, Malkin’s net-front presence on the game-winner and defenseman Kris Letang carrying 46:41 of ice time, it was an impressive performance for the Penguins’ big three, who might well be playing their last postseason together.
“I just think it speaks to the leadership and experience that we have in our dressing room,” Sullivan said. “These guys have been through this before, they understand the ebbs and flows and the challenges. Our leadership made sure we kept a certain demeanor, a level of composure so we could get back in the hockey game.”
Shesterkin, who faced 83 shots, will go in the postseason record books as No. 2 all-time for stopping 79 of them. Still, the Penguins broke through three times in regulation. They got to the game they wanted to play and put the Rangers on their heels. And now they hold an all-important 1-0 series lead on the road.
“I think our team really rose to the occasion,” Rust said. “We have to win there. There were a lot of things going on, between trying to make a comeback and three overtimes and Louis goes in the net. It was just a lot of fun.”