Observations from the Penguins' 3-2 overtime win against the Rangers.
There was a time the Penguins couldn't beat the Rangers.
It was 2014-15. Including the playoffs, the Rangers won seven of the nine games the teams played. And most of the time, the Penguins looked beaten as soon as the game started. The Rangers just looked like the better team most of those games.
Now, the Penguins have the advantage. Their speed and depth seems to give the Rangers fits. But most importantly, they look like they know they're the better team. They have a confidence against the Rangers and brick wall goaltender Henrik Lundqvist which was largely absent most of last season.
If these two teams square off in postseason, an increasingly likely scenario, the Penguins will enter that playoff series with a confidence against this particular opponent they haven't had in quite some time.
The Rangers took the game's first lead 4:19 into play. Rangers center Eric Staal shuffled a pass from the neutral zone to right winger Kevin Hayes on the right wing. Hayes gained the offensive zone and as defenseman Ben Lovejoy approached, Hayes chipped the puck to the slot. Staal hustled by defenseman Trevor Daley and as he fended off Daley with his left hand, he was able to jab his stick with his right hand and backhanded the puck by goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury's blocker. It was a brilliant individual effort by Staal. Hayes and right winger Jesper Fast netted assists.
The Penguins tied the game, 1-1, with 4:11 left in the first period. After killing a penalty, Daley faked a slapper from the right point then fed a pass to defenseman Derrick Pouliot above the left circle. Pouliot whacked a slapper towards the cage where center Matt Cullen deflected it down and through the five hole of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Pouliot and Daley had assists.
New York regained a lead, 2-1, only 2:07 into the second period. After defenseman Marc Staal ripped a wrister from the center point, the shot was blocked and right winger Bryan Rust tried to skate it up ice but lost it in the right circle. Fast was all over the puck and fed it to Eric Staal positioned low in the circle. Eric Staal one-timed a rocket by Fleury's glove hand on the near side for his second goal. Assists went to Fast and Hayes.
A little luck tied the game again, 2-2, at the 8:36 mark. Right winger Phil Kessel snapped off a pass attempt from his left half wall for left winger Carl Hagelin at the Rangers' blue line but the puck failed to connect and it slid down to the Rangers' end boards. The puck bounded into the trapezoid behind the Rangers' net and Lundqvist, under pressure from Hagelin, played it weakly to the left corner. Hagelin claimed the puck and shuffled it immediately to the crease where Lundqvist made the initial save. As he slid towards the center of the crease, the rebound wobbled to the left of the crease where Kessel darted in and lifted it into the open net behind an out-of-place Lundqvist. Hagelin had the lone assist
-After a lifeless, tight third period, the game moved to overtime. The Penguins had a power play for the first 1:59 of overtime but did little with that chance. Late in the period, a dominant shift by captain/center Sidney Crosby led to the winning goal. After losing a faceoff to Rangers center Derek Stepan in the Rangers' left circle, Crosby fended off Rangers right winger Mats Zuccarello and defenseman Ryan McDonagh for possession then backhanded a pass to Letang in the slot. Letang hurried a wrister which was off the mark and ricocheted in the left corner. Kessel corralled the rebound, fended off Stepan and fed a pass to Letang at center point. Letang veered to the right point and whipped a wrister towards the cage. Crosby was positioned above the crease battling Zuccarello and had the puck glance off his stick through Lundqvist's five hole. Assists went to Kessel and Letang.
-For as much campaigning the Penguins have been doing for Crosby in regards to the Hart Trophy, they're doing a disservice to a more deserving candidate in Letang. He "only" had one assist tonight, on Crosby's goal no less, but he did so many things all over the ice in this game. He was a horse in his own zone and seemingly got a stick or a body on any puck or puck carrier who dared venture into the Penguins' zone. He did so many little things which don't appear on a score sheet but his impact was felt on so many parts of this game. And he's been playing this way for most of the season.
-As far as the Hart Trophy goes, it's no coincidence that Crosby's surge in scoring has coincided with Letang's. Head coach Mike Sullivan's top priority since he took over was to get Crosby and Letang on the ice as much as possible. Sullivan feels Letang is the only one who can connect a pass with Crosby with speed. That's not to say previous coaches haven't wanted to get Crosby and Letang on the ice as much as possible but Sullivan almost does it at all costs. Maybe it's a "chicken and the egg" type of situation with who has benefited who, but Letang has been the Penguins' most valuable player this season.
-They weren't nearly as prolific as Saturday's offensive eruption, but the second line contributed once again. Kessel looked like he was shot out of a cannon while Hagelin created all kinds of issues for the Rangers as well with his speed. Center Nick Bonino just seemed willing to give them the puck and let them do their thing. Overall, the trio was solid, even if you account for Bonino taking a penalty, his fifth in the past nine games.
-The Penguins' depth contributed as well in the form of a Cullen goal. He has 13 goals. To put that in perspective, all-star Ducks center Ryan Getzlaf had 12 goals. It's really a marvel to think that Cullen was added late in the offseason almost as an insurance signing.
-Pouliot looked fine in his first game since March 5. He kept things simple and had the primary assist on Cullen's goal.
-If left winger Chris Kunitz was dealing with any aftereffects from his "upper-body" injury he suffered Saturday, they weren't apparent. He played his typical rabid game. He went to the high traffic areas and was involved in a handful of scoring chances, including one where he put a puck off a post.
-Fleury was solid. He could have made a save on Eric Staal's second goal but he also stole a few would-be goals. He looked fine for someone playing on back-to-back days.
-The Penguins' lone wart on this game was once again the power play. It looked unremarkable on two chances, including on a four-on-three situation in overtime.
-Eric Staal's dormant game came to life against a team he has usually feasted on. He looked pretty confidence, especially after his second goal.
-Beyond him and his linemates, the Rangers really didn't get many contributions. Centers like J.T. Miller, Derick Brassard, Chris Kreider and Stepan, players who usually do the heavy lifting for this team, were rather ordinary tonight.
-Lundqvist got lucky a few times with some shots off the posts but he was strong. He played well enough to win.
-Sullivan talked about the game overall with reporters and team employees after the game:
“I thought we played hard. I thought for a lot of the game, it was a fairly even game. They had some momentum. We had some momentum. There were scoring chances on both sides. It was a hard game to play. I thought both teams checked pretty hard. You had to fight for every inch of ice out there. Those types of games where you have to fight to get your offense, you don't get any freebies. Those are hard fought games. I thought our guys played really hard. They stayed with it.”
-Crosby on the game:
“I think that we worked hard for it. It was a pretty even hockey game. That’s what we’re playing for, to get these two points, especially after a pretty emotional game yesterday, knowing what that meant. To come back and have a good effort and find a way to get two points in a back-to-back against a good team is nice.”
-Letang on the game:
“They got the lead in their building a couple of times. And they're a tough team to play against, especially here in New York, with the system they play, sometimes you have to go off the plan and try to do different things out there. We kept playing the same way and got rewarded."
-Sullivan was asked about taking a time out prior to Crosby's goal:
"We were trying to get those guys on the ice one more time. We think they give us the best chance to win. And it just gave us an opportunity to give them a breather so we could get them on the ice one more time.”
Sullivan likes Kessel's play as of late:
“I thought his last two games might be his best games since I've been here. You can see his speed through the neutral zone. He's going to the battle areas. He's in front of the net. He's down in the trenches. I think Phil is playing hard right now. It's really evident with his speed. He's a dangerous guy. I've said on a number of occasions, when the puck comes off his stick, it comes off his stick differently.”
“Phil is getting his legs lately. I've talked about it many times. I think when he gets his nose in the [fertilizer], I like when he gets kind of mean and dirty. When he gets his nose in there, that's when he's at his best. We've seen it a couple of times lately. That's the type of player he needs to be.”
-Lundqvist knows what's up with the Penguins' second line:
“I think their second line is really strong, a lot of speed. When Kessel skates like that he’s one of the better players in the league, and [Hagelin] with his speed. So it’s a tough team to defend with that kind of speed but we did a pretty good job of keeping them to the outside. When they get going, it’s definitely challenging.”
-Sullivan was asked about the significance of beating the Rangers three consecutive times:
"All I know is what I've seen since I've been here. This is a new group. This is a new group of players. This is a new coaching staff. We're pleased with the types of game we've played against the Rangers to this point. What's important from our standpoint, is regardless of who our opponent is, we're trying to play the game a certain way. And when we play to our identity and don't get caught up in somebody else's game, I think that's when our team is at our best and I think we've been able to do that against the Rangers."
-Fleury on the significance of the win:
“It’s big for the standings. It’s so close with a division game. You definitely need those points. They’ve had our number in the playoffs the past few seasons.”
-Sullivan liked what Hagelin did on Kessel's goal:
"It was a heads-up play by [Hagelin] to put the puck at the net. I think Lundqvist was in an awkward position and by [Hagelin] putting that puck at the net, sometimes it's not about [Hagelin] scoring but it's about creating a next play. And that's what he did. He created an opportunity for Phil to come in and get the rebound. I thought it was a real heads up play.”
-The Penguins led in shots, 32-27.
-Kessel led the game with five shots.
-Eric Staal and former Penguins left winger Tanner Glass led the game with four shots each.
-Fire Jim Rutherford.
-Letang led the game with 31:45 off ice time.
-The overtime period lasted 4:30 and Letang played 3:56 of it. On his two shifts in overtime, he averaged 1:58.
-McDonagh led the Rangers with 24:31 of ice time.
-The Penguins had a 36-31 lead in faceoffs (54 percent).
-Cullen was 12 for 18 (67 percent)
-Stepan was 11 for 18 (61 percent).
-Daley and Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein each led the game with six blocked shots.
-Crosby had his first overtime goal in over a year:
It's the 8th regular season OT goal of Crosby's career, first since Jan. 10, 2015 @ Montreal. Six of his eight have come on the road.— Bob Grove (@bobgrove91) March 28, 2016
-The Penguins' last overtime win against the Rangers was a 5-4 victory at Madison Square Garden March 4, 2010.
-Letang (343 points) moved past right winger "Downtown" Robbie Brown (342 points) for 19th place on the franchise's career scoring list.
(Photo: Seth Wenig/Associated Press)