Observations from the Penguins' 6-3 win against the Rangers:
The Penguins' 2014-15 season ended exactly 365 days ago on April 24, 2015 - there was a leap day this year - when they lost to the Rangers, 2-1, in overtime of Game 5 of their first-round series
After the Penguins shook hands with the Rangers at Madison Square and shuffled off for a long summer, there was a lot of uncertainty about what was a very limited roster at the time.
Almost one calendar year later, only seven Penguins players who skated in that 2015 Game 5 exchanged handshakes with the Rangers today after they ended New York's 2015-16 season with a 6-3 rout at Consol Energy Center.
Seriously, look at this:
Granted, injuries kind of impact the numbers. Defensemen Kris Letang and Olli Maatta were sidelined in 2015 while goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury and Scott Wilson are currently sidelined. But the sheer volume of roster changes this team has undergone in the past year is no accident.
"Obviously, that tells a lot,” said right winger Patric Hornqvist (above, with Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist), one of the seven holdovers. “We want to win. We were not good enough last year. We brought in some new players and some young players and they've been great for us. They always play so hard and they score big goals. We're a way better team this year than last year.”
The Penguins depth stamped down the Rangers most of this series. Even when the Rangers got off to a fast start in this game, the Penguins just kind of took over and secured this win with ease.
They will face the Capitals or Flyers in the second round and with the benefit of a few days rest to heal up any bumps and bruises, it's hard to imagine there being any reason they can't advance past either of those teams with ease.
The Rangers took the game's first lead only 1:02 into regulation. Center Derick Brassard played a puck from the right corner off the right wing boards. Defenseman Brady Skjei corralled it in front of the Penguins' boards and fed a pass to defenseman Dan Girardi at the right point. Girardi whacked a half one-timer which appeared to glance off the sticks of Rangers right winger Rick Nash and defenseman Ben Lovjeoy then under goaltender Matt Murray's blocker into the net. Nash was credited with the goal. Assists went to Girardi and Skjei.
The Penguins' second line responded at 9:50 of the first period. After a turnover by Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle in his own zone, defenseman Brian Dumoulin kept a puck in at the left point and chopped it to above the left circle. Center Nick Bonino punched it deep to the end boards where left winger Carl Hagelin grabbed it and went to work. He skated to the right corner, veered off a check then banked a pass off the end boards to right winger Phil Kessel to the left of the net. Kessel surveyed the crease then fed a pass which glanced off the stick of Rangers defenseman Kevin Klein across the blue paint. Hagelin darted by Rangers center Derek Stepan and tapped in the puck past the left skate of Lundqvist. Assists went to Kessel and Bonino.
A strange goal regained the lead for the Rangers 45 seconds later. Gaining the offensive zone on the left wing, center Dominic Moore fed a cross-ice pass to right winger Jesper Fast. Fast tried to feed a pass to left winger Viktor Stalberg driving to the net but backchecking center Sidney Crosby raced back and deflected the puck through Murray's five hole and off the far post. The puck ricocheted out of the blue paint. Defenseman Kris Letang overskated it as did Moore. Hornqvist, also backchecking, ended up deflecting it back into the crease with his left skate. The puck glanced off the inside of Moore's left leg and into the net. Fast and defenseman Marc Staal had assists.
Another power-play goal by the Penguins tied the game, 2-2 at the 11:39 mark. Crosby snapped a pass from the neutral zone to Kessel racing up the right wing with speed. Kessel advanced to the right dot and sniped a wrister to the far side which glanced off Lundqvist's blocker and into the net under the cross bar. It was a beautiful shot. Crosby and Letang had assists.
The Penguins took their first lead of the day at 5:21 of the second period. Taking a pass from center Matt Cullen at the high slot, defenseman Trevor Daley fired a shot/pass to right winger Bryan Rust slinking his way to the right of the crease. Rust settled the pass and lifted it past the glove hand of a scrambling Lundqvist. Daley and Cullen had assists.
The fourth line got in on the action again at 9:36. Rust pestered Rangers center Derick Brassard into a turnover above the Rangers' left circle. Cullen followed up on the play, grabbed the puck and sniped a wrister by Lundqvist's left shoulder on the far side. Rust and right winger Tom Kuhnhackl had assists.
The Penguins poured it on at 16:18 of the second period. After killing a penalty, Crosby poked a puck away from Staal at the Penguins' right point and worked his way up the left wing wall. He pulled up at the left point and fed a soft pass to left winger Conor Sheary driving down the slot. Sheary drove to the net and ripped a wrister by Lundqvist's glove hand. Crosby had the lone assist.
The rout was on with 59 seconds left in the second. Center Evgeni Malkin worked his way up the left wing board on a two-on-one with Rust against Skjei. Malkin feathered a pass to Rust to the right of the cage and Rust lifted a wrister past a helpless Lundqvist. Malkin had the lone assist.
The Rangers got a goal back at 5:35 of the third period. Working on a power play, Rangers center Mats Zuccarello fired a wrister from the left point wide of the cage. The puck hit off the end board and bounced to Brassard at the right half wall. Brassard fed it to defenseman Raphael Diaz at the right point. Diaz fired a slapper though traffic. Rangers center Chris Kreider had a screen on the play and tipped the puck past Murray's left shoulder on the near side. Diaz and Brassard had assists.
-Again this team's depth is a marvel, especially when you consider the shortcomings they've had in this area the past two years. Two of their top-six forwards - Hagelin and Kessel - opened the scoring - and bottom sixers - Rust, Cullen and Sheary - finished it.
-The special teams battle was so one-sided. The Penguins went 8 for 21 (38.1 percent) in the series while the Rangers went 2 for 19 (10.5 percent). Malkin's return really got the power play straightened out and turned it into a dangerous group. And the penalty kill has been strong all season long. The Penguins won this series largely due to special teams.
-Rust started this series by returning to the lineup from injury in Game 2 and was stoned on a crucial breakaway by Lundqvist. He ended by getting two goals and helping chase Lundqvist from his final game of the season. He's a perfect example of the development so many of this team's prospects have undergone this season. When he first arrived in the NHL last season, he simply brought some energy with his youth and exuberance. Now, there's more substance to that flash.
-Sheary was once again a force in this game. After toasting Lundqvist in Game 5 on the blocker side, he did so tonight on the glove side. He even threw his small 5-foot-7, 175 body around a few times and got a big hit which dropped big Stalberg (6-foot-3, 209 pounds).
-Cullen continues to be a critical component of this team's success. A stalwart of the strong penalty kill, he has gelled with virtually any linemate he has worked with this season. Lately, Rust and Kuhnhackl have been flanking him. Today, that trio combined for the eventual game-winning goal, Cullen's second of the series. It's not an accident that Cullen is doing this at age 39. He is committed off the ice and has been one of this team's true leaders.
-Daley had a really creative play to set up Rust's first goal. The absence of plays like that were a large part of this team's struggles the first two and a half months of the season. The team failed to find an immediate replacement for defenseman Paul Martin last offseason but Daley has filled that void ever since he arrived in mid-December.
-Murray didn't have his strongest game today. He could have made a save on Nash's tip in. But he was more than adequate for this game. He's given the Penguins stability at the most important position with franchise goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury sidelined due to a concussion. You almost expect a kid this young and inexperienced to falter at some point but he shows few signs of that ever coming. It's fair to wonder if Fleury will get his job back if and when he comes back this postseason.
-Fleury skated in the morning and took some shots from coaches.
-This team just wasn't good enough. Injuries hampered their blue line throughout the series but even beyond that, they weren't deep enough to contend with the Penguins. In 2014 and 2015, the Rangers had the clear advantage in depth.
-Lundqvist was pulled three times in this series - including in Game 1 when he suffered an eye injury - and simply didn't look like the dominant goaltender who snuffed out any hopes the Penguins had the previous two seasons.
-The Rangers got some offense from some of their top players in Nash and Kreider but it was too little too late. The Rangers didn't get nearly enough contributions from the entire lineup, especially the top portions of it.
-After five tries, the Penguins finally beat Dominic Moore in the postseason. He played key roles for the Canadiens (2010), Lightning (2011) and Rangers (2014 and 2015) in playoff wins those seasons. Until today, he was largely a non-factor.
-The Rangers went with 11 forwards and seven defensemen today. Girardi returned after missing three games due to an undisclosed injury while Diaz was inserted into the lineup to boost the power play. Girardi set up the Rangers' opening goal while Diaz had the primary assist on Kreider's power play goal.
-Head coach Alain Vigneault said Girardi received medical clearance to practice in the morning.
-Ineffective defenseman Dan Boyle and former Penguins left winger Tanner Glass were made healthy scratches.
-Center Eric Staal finished his Rangers career - presumably - with six points in 25 games including the postseason. They paid a big price to bring him in at the trade deadline. Suffice it to say, he did not live up to expectations.
-Letang summed up the team's turnover pretty well:
"We're a different team obviously. We have a lot more depth than we used to. If you look at the last few years, if [Crosby and Malkin] were not scoring, we were not scoring any goals. But right now, all four lines are creating offense. We have a lot of speed. I think that changed."
Crosby spoke about the turnover from last season:
“There's been a lot. It's been a lot but I think with that, you have to build during the year and we went through a lot of adversity throughout the year with the tough start, injuries throughout the whole entire year. And I think we learned a lot about this group along the way. I think we're continuing to build. I think we've come together. Different guys have stepped up at different points during the season and I think that built up a real strong belief in the dressing room.”
-Getting the series wrapped up early was important for Sullivan:
"We certainly didn't want to go back to New York for Game 6. I think when you have teams at that elimination point, you want to do your best to take care of business right then and there. We did speak about that with our group and making sure whenever teams are faced with the eliminate game, there's a heightened intensity, there's a heightened sense of urgency and we were certainly going to have to match that. It's that killer instinct. There's a certain mindset I think you have to go into the game with so you have to control what you can you don't put your team in a vulnerable circumstance if we have to go back to New York. Without a doubt, we wanted to do everything we could to try to win this game today."
Crosby talked about Sheary's development:
“He looks really comfortable out there. I think [Sheary] has gotten more and more comfortable with every game that he's played. But to be in his situation and in the playoffs and thrown a lot of responsibility pretty early, I think he's handled it really well. He's fast. He's shown a lot of poise with the puck. He's buried some big chances for us. But again, I think that's been a continuation of building confidence through the end of the season, him and along with a lot of young guys who have been thrown into different roles. They've been a big part of our success and out depth has allowed us to have success."
-Rust talked about himself and the other Wilkes-Barre/Scranton call-ups contributing:
“It's obviously really special for us because it seems like every game, there's a different one of us who is kind of stepping up and having a big game or making a big play. It's nice because its like we know we can contribute here and we know we can get it done.”
-Cullen lauded the young guys:
“They've been good for us all year, everybody that has come up. It's a long list of guys. These guys are playing exceptional right now. I can't say enough. I'm really proud of them. They're good kids and they work their butt off. They've come with a great attitude. They've essentially saved our season for us when we were really hurting. They've been awesome.”
-Letang spoke about the power play's success:
"I think they tried to change their forecheck off the breakout. Sid saw the opening right in the middle and made a great pass to Phil. I think we did a great job adjusting. When we simplify things and we play with what we have, that's where we're successful."
Cullen talked about the penalty kill:
“We've worked a lot on our kill. Like a lot of kills, you try to take away time and space and make it hard on the power play and we were able to do that. I think when you get in a rhythm and you get your guys going – and of course you get really good goaltending – you can be really good on the [penalty kill]."
Hornqvist was asked what he's learned about Kessel over the season:
"He's a [heck] of a passer. I thought he was more of a shooter when I played against him. When he had the puck there on the half wall of the power play, their killers just collapses because they know he can see them so well. That's why [Letang and Malkin] get a little more time up top and that creates more things for everybody else. On the power play. He works really hard and he's a really good skater. He was huge this series and I'm sure he's going to be even better this series."
-Sullivan was asked what he knew about Murray before joining the Penguins as the head coach of Wilkes-Barre/Scranton and when he realized he was an NHL-caliber goaltender:
“I didn't know a lot about him before I got the job to be the coach down in Wilkes-Barre. Once I got the job, I watched their playoff rounds from the previous year so I could try to familiarize myself with some of the players that were there because I didn't know a lot of the players. I didn't have a lot of exposure the last few years to the [AHL] and he was one of those guys that jumps out at you. So when I had the opportunity to coach him in Wilkes-Barre at the beginning of the year and I saw his demeanor and his preparation process, for a young guy he really understands what it takes to be a pro. He comes to the rink every day, controls what he can. His work ethic is really strong and he has that daily approach that I think is so necessary in order for players to be at their best. He gives himself every chance to be successful because he controls everything in his power to do so. And that jumped out at me really early. Then when I watched him play in the game, he has a demeanor about him that he doesn't let the ebbs and flows of the game affect him. He doesn't get rattled if he lets in a goal that he thinks he that he should have had. He just refocuses and he plays. That's a maturity that most young players, especially at the goaltending position, but all players for that matter, it takes time to develop that. Matt has that already. When you watch him play, it didn't take me long to figure out this guy's an NHL-caliber goalie."
-Vigneault lauded the Penguins:
“They finished as the hottest team in the league. They played a real sound defensive game and when they get the opportunity, with the firepower they have, they can finish. Right now, they're probably the hottest team in the league.”
-Lundvist took on the blame for the loss:
"The last two [games] I didn't have enough in me to make the difference. … You need strong goaltending, you need a goalie that's going to make a lot of big extra saves and I was unable to come up with that."
-Marc Staal ripped the defense:
"We didn't defend nearly good enough to win a playoff series. Inconsistent and not on the same page from our blue line in for a lot of it. You're not going to win that way."
-McDonagh was despondent:
"Obviously, the results were the way the were. They played better, simply put. They executed better in pretty much all facets of the game, power play, penalty kill and five on five. Talked about it before the series, keys that we wanted to do. It was going to take everybody in this room and simply put, we didn't play well enough. They were a lot better throughout the series and sharp all the way through. Didn't give us much. Made us pay for a lot of our mistakes and we made too many."
-The Rangers led in shots, 41-28.
-Zuccarello led the game with seven shots.
-Daley led the Penguins with five shots.
-Letang led the game with 25:52 of ice time.
-Marc Staal led the Rangers with 20:11 of ice time.
-The Rangers led the game in faceoffs, 47-27 (64 percent).
-Eric Staal was 16 for 24 (67 percent).
-Crosby was 9 for 22 (41 percent).
-Sheary, Rangers center Derek Stepan and McDonagh each led the game with three blocked shots.
-Rust became the first Penguins rookie to score three points in a postseason game.
-Murray is young:
-The Penguins are now 5-2 all-time in postseason series against the Rangers.
-The Penguins scored a power-play goal in all five games of the series.
-Kessel had six points in five games this series. He now has 27 points in 27 career postseason games.
(Photo: Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press)