PITTSBURGH — The Rangers could not have scripted it more to their advantage. Or maybe that should be, more than their three advantages.
Because following a first-period team-wide meltdown through which a perhaps flustered Igor Shesterkin allowed four goals on 15 shots before being pulled in favor of Alexandar Georgiev at the first intermission with a 4-1 deficit, the Blueshirts came roaring back.
They got their forecheck game going. They were able to escape their zone and get through the neutral zone without calamity. And they seemed to pierce the aura and romance attached to third-string netminder Louis Domingue, beating him three times on 10 shots within a span of 9:08 to knot the contest at 4-4.
The youngish and untested Blueshirts had leaped into the crucible head first without looking and somehow were coming through on the other side. Not only that, here came the power-play unit for the first time in the match at 18:35 of the second period.
The power play has become the genesis of the Blueshirts’ offensive identity. The inviolate first unit consisting of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Ryan Strome and Adam Fox has set the team apart. It represents the club’s greatest weapon. The Rangers had gone the first 38:35 of this match without a man-advantage while the Penguins had been awarded three.
Now was the time.
Well, no it was not.
The Rangers did little on the man-advantage that bridged the second and third periods, the intermission having given the 30-year-old Domingue time to reset and regain his composure. Given another opportunity on a Evgeni Malkin hooking penalty at 2:19, the Blueshirts did apply pressure but were thwarted again, this time Domingue stopping Zibanejad twice from the left side.
Incredibly, the Blueshirts were awarded their third straight power play when Danton Heinen was sent off for a slash at 6:29. This time the Rangers were far too deliberate, the two minutes ending without a shot.
The unhappy recap: Three power plays within a span of 8:54, and no goals on a sum of three shots. The team’s greatest offensive strength had turned into a fatal weakness at the most inopportune time.
And so it seemed inevitable that the Penguins, outplayed from pillar to post from the start of the second to deep into the third, would somehow find a way. They did, with Heinen slipping one short side past Georgiev at 11:02 for the 5-4 lead that became a 7-4 final padded by a pair of empty-netters to give Pittsburgh the 2-1 series lead.
“For sure,” Strome said after it had been suggested that the power-play unit had squandered its chance to change the outcome. “All we wanted was an opportunity and we had a chance to change the game and couldn’t get one so it’s obviously frustrating especially after clawing all the way back and going through some adversity.
“In a series you have to adjust. They made some good adjustments so we have to adjust and be ready for Game 4 [Monday] on the power play and five-on-five, as well.”
This is a series that has been played almost entirely in wide-open spaces. This is most certainly not traditional playoff hockey. The momentum swings have been gargantuan. Neither team has been able to maintain defensive zone structure for much more than a shift or two at a time.
The Rangers want to be even keel between games but a dose of that on the ice would be helpful. The first period was a throwback to the worst of the worst of the season.
“I don’t think we got to our game nearly quick enough,” Kreider said. “I don’t think we were playing together, especially at this point of the season. Effort is not something you question, it’s a matter of working smart, not hard.
“Obviously, I liked the response but we’ve had moments during the year where we put ourselves in holes like that and were able to claw back but that’s not something to do in the playoffs. It’s something that better get rectified quickly.
The thing is, the Rangers did claw back on a night where The Kid Line with Filip Chytil centering Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere was probably the team’s most dangerous unit through the first two periods. They persevered despite an ugly night from Patrik Nemeth and incoherence in D-zone coverage.
After all of the chaos, after all of the mistakes, the Rangers had the game just where they wanted it.
Then they didn’t.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism