From the opening moments of Thursday’s 5-0 win that pushed the Rangers to the brink of playoff elimination, the Penguins were pushing the pace.
“I thought we had a great start,” said head coach Mike Sullivan. “I thought we had good energy. We were playing fast, which is when we’re at our best.”
They got on the scoreboard fast, too, with Eric Fehr beating New York’s Henrik Lundqvist just 1:09 into the contest.
“It was a huge goal for us, as far as giving us momentum right off the start,” Sullivan said. “And he paid the price to do it. It was a middle drive, a net drive where he banged in a rebound.”
Beyond momentum, the early lead opened things up and prevented the Rangers from settling into their often impenetrable neutral-zone game.
“Especially in this building, where [goals are] so hard to come by, they collapse in front of their net and make it really difficult to get shots through,” Fehr said. “I think us scoring early really opened the game up a little bit and gave us the opportunity to score a few more.”
By the end of the first period, Patric Hornqvist and Conor Sheary had also contributed goals. And star forward Evgeni Malkin – benched for the last five minutes of Game 3 and struggling after fast-tracking his return from injury – showed signs of starting to find his game as he set up the first two goals.
“Geno’s missed a lot of time,” Sullivan said. “No matter how good you are, it takes some time to get back into the game mode where your timing is there and your intensity level is there. The fact that we might’ve [gone] to some defending players down the stretch [in Game 3] is no reflection on his play, but I thought he took a big step tonight. His timing is better; his conditioning is getting better with each game he plays. He’s going to help us win. He’s a dynamic player, as you saw tonight.”
Lundqvist certainly had the chance to see it up close and personal. After Malkin scored a power-play goal four minutes into the second period to extend the Penguins’ lead to 4-0, the Rangers’ world-class netminder took a seat on the bench, replaced by backup Antti Raanta. Just for good measure, Malkin put home another power-play marker early in the third.
“I’m not thinking about my assists or my goals,” Malkin said. “Just play my game and, if I help the team, it’s good. But, if not, we have all four lines here that can score.”
That should go a long way toward easing the concerns of some who thought Malkin’s return might disrupt the combinations that had worked so well when Pittsburgh went on a 14-2 run to end the season.
“He wants to win; he’s a competitive guy,” Sullivan said. “He cares about this team, and he knows he’s a big part of our team having success. He’s a self-driven guy and he wants to be a big part of this. He wants to be on the ice; he wants the puck in crucial situations.
“The challenge for us was, how do we move him into this group where we can settle into some combinations that make us hard to play against, that create more balance for our team and allow Geno to do what he does best? I think we’ve settled into some line combinations [for Malkin, centering Chris Kunitz and Fehr] that make us the best team where the balance is concerned and give our team the best chance to win.”
“He’s one of the easiest guys in the world to play with,” said Fehr. “Just get him the puck and get out of the way. He likes to hang onto it and you just try to get open, try to get in front and create space for him. He fights guys off as well as anybody and protects the puck really well.”
For 21-year-old netminder Matt Murray, his second career playoff outing was more challenging than his first as he faced 31 Rangers shots, nearly half of them coming in a desperate third period.
What to do for an encore when you allowed just one goal in your debut? Post a shutout, naturally.
“A win is a win and it feels good but, at the same time, at this point in the season it really doesn’t matter until you get the fourth one,” Murray said. “I know it’s cliché, I know you guys probably hate hearing it, but we’re taking it one game at a time, and that’s how you have to approach these situations. We’ll enjoy this one for the night and then we’ll move on.”
If that sounds unnaturally even-keeled given Murray’s age and accomplishment, it’s par for the course.
“He doesn’t surprise me,” Sullivan said. “I watched him in Wilkes-Barre when I had him there; I’ve watched him here when he’s played in big games for us down the stretch. He knows he’s good. And he has a quiet confidence about him that I think really helps him deal with the ebbs and flows.
“For a young guy, he’s mature beyond his years. I also think he’s a guy who reads the play extremely well and, because of that, positionally he’s a very sound guy.”
Now the Penguins head back to Pittsburgh with the chance to close out the series on home ice Saturday. And, although Murray wasn’t with the team in 2014, it’s a safe bet he and his teammates want no part of repeating the Penguins’ collapse to the Rangers with the same 3-1 lead that year.
“It’s exciting, obviously,” Murray said. “It’s pretty cool and pretty emotional. I’ll definitely go call my parents after the game and share this with them. But, after tonight, it doesn’t really matter going forward. Honestly, we have to focus on the next one, and the next one’s going to be the hardest one to get.”