NEW YORK — Evgeni Malkin sent the Rangers home from Game 1 of their first-round playoff series on Tuesday tired, disappointed and in need of a prompt, resilient response.
The Pittsburgh Penguins star ended a triple-overtime marathon at Madison Square Garden with a net-front deflection goal to hand the Blueshirts a bitter 4-3 loss and drop them into a 0-1 hole to begin the seven-game series. It came on the 83rd shot Rangers goalie Igor Shesterkin saw after 105:58 of hockey.
“It was a great game by two teams,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “It’s tough to lose like that, but we’ll get back on the horse and get ready for the next game.”
The Rangers started fast, then faded, then nearly won in regulation on a Filip Chytil goal that was disallowed due to goalie interference with 3:10 remaining. Gallant said it was “a 50-50 call” and refused to harp on it or use it as an excuse.
Instead, the message was to turn the page quickly and regroup for Game 2 at MSG at 7 pm Thursday.
“Take a look at the things that we did well and tighten up a couple of things,” Mika Zibanejad said. “We believe in each other in there. We trust each other in there, and we’re here for a reason. … Just keep playing our way.”
The Penguins stole home-ice advantage from the Rangers in heartbreaking fashion, despite playing the final 16:40 with third-string goalie Louis Domingue.
No. 1 Tristan Jarry has been out since April 14 due to a broken foot, and while backup Casey DeSmith played admirably in his absence, he exited during the second overtime with a lower-body injury.
Domingue was surprisingly good considering the circumstances, making 17 saves to help the Pens eke out a critical win. They entered the series as a clear underdog after losing each of their previous three regular-season meetings with the Rangers, but now they’ve backed the young favorite into an early corner.
Shesterkin made 42 saves in regulation and 79 in total, which marked the second-highest total in NHL history behind Columbus’ Joonas Korpisalo, who made 85 during a game in the 2020 playoffs. It easily surpassed Gump Worsley’s franchise record of 56 on April 5, 1962.
Labeling Thursday as a must-win for the inexperienced Blueshirts might be a stretch, but it’s pretty close to it. Going back to Pittsburgh in an 0-2 hole would represent a bad situation all around.
Their resolve is going to be tested right away.
A roller coaster ride
The Rangers unleashed their bottled-up energy beginning right at puck drop, looking like a team that had been waiting for this playoff opportunity for five years. They dished out a handful of crushing hits in the opening period while dictating the pace of the play, making it look like this could be a series that ends quickly.
If they can play that way consistently, their chances of bouncing back are high.
“We couldn’t play 60 minutes like that,” Gallant said. “I’d love to say that we could. The forecheck was great. We got a great opening 25 minutes, but Pittsburgh is a proud team and they’re going to come back. They played hard, (but) I loved our start .”
Adam Fox capitalized on that momentum on their first power play, sneaking a wrist shot from the point past DeSmith to give the Blueshirts a 1-0 lead after 9:19 had been played.
Andrew Copp doubled the lead early in the second period, converting a one-timer from the slot on a feed from Ryan Strome at the 3:08 mark. But if anyone started believing it was going to be easy, they were in for a rude awakening.
The Rangers began the game by out-shooting Pittsburgh, 11-2. But for a stretch that started at the end of the first period and ran through the second, the Pens turned the tide by winning the shot battle, 33-12. That included a whopping 25 shots on goal in the second period alone, leading to three goals.
“I think we learned a lesson a little bit in the second period,” Strome said. “When you’re up 2-0, you’d like to think that you could shut them down a little more. But they clawed back in. … I don’t think we were as assertive in the second period and hard on the forecheck.”
The first two Pittsburgh goals came from Jake Guentzel on defensive breakdowns.
The Rangers were caught sleeping on the first after Shesterkin made a sprawling save on a rush chance from Kris Letang early in the second period. In the seconds following the save, Jacob Trouba drifted too far away from the net, leaving Guentzel wide open for a far-post feed from Sidney Crosby and an easy finish.
That cut Pittsburgh’s deficit to 2-1, with Guentzel typing the score at the 11:47 mark after he and Crosby beat Fox and Ryan Lindgren on a rush opportunity.
“They’re going to create chances,” Zibanejad said. “Probably the best way to keep them from getting their chances is to have the puck and have some O-zone time, but it’s a hard battle. I think it’s a fun challenge to go up against a guy like (Crosby) and a line like (Crosby, Guentzel and Bryan Rust). We’re expecting long series. We’re going to get to know them a lot better.”
The Rangers briefly stopped the bleeding thanks to a game-altering play from Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. The former scooped up a loose puck during a penalty kill and raced up the right wing before pushing a pass ahead to Kreider. He did the rest, chasing it down and deking DeSmith for a shorthanded goal that put the Blueshirts back on top, 3-2, with 2:53 remaining in the second period.
It felt like the type of play that would propel them to victory, but a shaky night from their D corps continued shortly thereafter. Patrik Nemeth was called for holding — his second penalty of the game — and Trouba was whistled for boarding, setting up the Penguins with a five-on-three opportunity with 2:11 left in the period.
They cashed in on a pretty passing play from Letang to Malkin to Rust, sending the game into the third tied at 3-3.
a controversial moment
Shesterkin’s effort gave the Rangers a chance to retake the lead, which they appeared to do with 3:10 to play in regulation.
Kaapo Kakko drove the net and fell after a collision with DeSmith, but stayed with the puck and made a nifty pass back to Chytil while laying on his stomach.
Chytil finished into the open net, which sent the MSG crowd into a frenzy. But the goal was reviewed and ultimately waved off due to goalie interference.
Kakko clearly hit DeSmith, but he was also pushed by Brian Dumoulin at the last moment. The NHL Situation Room determined that Kakko’s path was heading toward DeSmith regardless of the Dumoulin hit, making it a controversial judgment call that wasn’t going to sit well with either side.
Would he have run into the goalie even if he wasn’t shoved? Or would he have narrowly avoided him?
The debate will rage on, but the only sure thing was that the game remained tied at 3-3 and was on its way to overtime.
“The game happens so fast,” Strome said. “Obviously, he’s not trying to run in the goalie or anything. I thought it was a call that could go either way. It is what it is. To look back on something like that now, I mean – it was a three-overtime game. You could look back on many small plays during the game. Obviously that one, we would have liked it to go our way. But it’s probably a 50-50 call, and they got it this time.”
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Read more of his work from him at lohud.com/sports/rangers/ and follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism