PITTSBURGH - The Penguins got behind early in Game 1 of their second-round series against the New York Rangers, and while they made a valiant attempt to dig themselves out of that 2-0 hole, they fell in overtime, 3-2.
Now Pittsburgh is behind in the series and while it’s still early, Game 2 – scheduled for Sunday at CONSOL Energy Center – is going to be critical in terms of making sure it’s even heading into Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
“It's the playoffs. You have to be desperate for every win,” said James Neal, who scored for the Penguins along with Lee Stempniak. “Tonight I thought we did a good job in the second and third period. It wasn't the start we wanted, but we'll regroup. It's a team we know we're going up against. We still need to put more pucks. There I don't think we did a good enough job going to the net. We'll regroup and we'll be fine.”
Marc-Andre Fleury made 25 saves for the Penguins, while Henrik Lundqvist stopped 34 down at the other end.
Entering the second round, there was so much talk about the Rangers’ schedule as they had an extremely quick turnaround from their last series. New York played Game 7 against Philadelphia on Wednesday night and had less than 48 hours to recover from their long, grueling series before tonight’s Game 1. Additionally, Games 2 and 3 are back to back – meaning the Rangers will play at least five games in eight days.
Meanwhile, the Pens were off since closing out their first-round series in Columbus on Monday. Being the more rested team, the fresh Penguins should have been all over the exhausted Rangers from the drop of the puck and taken advantage of their tired legs. Right? Wrong.
The Pens looked like they were the team with the hectic schedule, as they came out flat and were outplayed by the Rangers in every facet of the game during that opening 20 minutes. And they paid for their poor play, as New York got out to a 2-0 lead they carried into the first intermission on goals from Benoit Pouliot and Brad Richards.
“You don’t want to fall in that position,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “It’s tough in the playoffs to come back.”
While the first period was dreadful for Pittsburgh, their second was a completely different story as they were magnificent. And just like they did against Columbus, the Pens were able to battle back from the early 2-0 hole they dug themselves with goals from Stempniak and Neal. Stempniak got it started 7:15 into the period, while Neal followed it up 13:28 in.
The Penguins were dominant. They swarmed all over the Rangers, keeping them pinned in their own end and holding them to just one shot through the first half of the period. Overall, Pittsburgh had a 15-4 advantage in shots that period.
They did a much better job of establishing a “shot and crash” mentality on Lundqvist, which was nonexistent in the first as New York did a tremendous job of blocking shots, keeping the Pens to the outside and making sure their netminder saw every shot during the opening 20 minutes. That all changed in the second as the Pens got to the blue paint and started making Lundqvist uncomfortable.
The first period was all New York; the second all Pittsburgh. From there, the two teams played even hockey in the third period and overtime and like Crosby said, it could have gone either way.
“We were just aggressive,” Crosby said on what changed for his team after the first. “We forced turnovers, we played in their end. Nothing that’s new, but we were able to do it consistently. It gave us a couple goals and a big boost there.”
The initial elation following what appeared to be a tying goal scored by Neal turned to nervous anticipation as the referees had to review the play.
As Neal shot the puck (he had a wide-open look from the slot), Malkin followed it to the net. He waved his stick at it as the puck hit Lundqvist, bounced up high and landed on his back before bouncing into the net. If Malkin had touched it, he would have been whistled for a high stick – which would negate the goal. But after an official review, it was ruled that Malkin never contacted it with his stick.
The official explanation from the NHL’s hockey operations department was as follows:
“At 13:28 of the second period in the Rangers/Penguins game, video review determined that James Neal's shot crossed the New York goal line in a legal fashion, never touching Evgeni Malkin's stick. Good goal Pittsburgh.”
Stempniak scored a pretty goal to start the comeback attempt, and nearly capped it off in the waning seconds of regulation. Crosby started the play when he dropped a pass to an open Stempniak while surrounded by Blueshirts. A Rangers defenseman dove to his stomach in anticipation of a shot that didn’t come, as Stempniak patiently dragged the puck around him before firing a shot on net with Chris Kunitz providing the screen. However, Lundqvist came up with a critical save to keep the score tied and get his team to overtime.
“(Crosby) was carrying the puck up the middle, he had all the guys converge on him and somehow I got the puck, saw the guy lay out and tried waiting it out and getting around him,” Stempniak said. “It would have been nice to put that one in, I didn’t get all of it.”
--Mike Prisuta, Pittsburgh Penguins