PITTSBURGH – The young and skilled outfit that is the Pittsburgh Penguins added another important entry Friday night in a story that has years left to play out.
Down 3-0 in the second period to the Eastern Conference’s stingiest team this season, Sidney Crosby and his teammates rallied back for a 5-4 thriller in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal with the New York Rangers.
“I don’t think you’re ever happy on the bench when you’re down three-zip, but there’s a difference between not being happy and quitting,” said Crosby, who was the game’s best player while putting up two assists.
It was an important achievement, psychologically most of all, for a young core playing only its third-ever playoff series.
“At that point (down 3-0) we were a little shaky, but it showed the character of this hockey team,” said Penguins head coach Michel Therrien. “We never quit. This is a great accomplishment for that young group to be able to bounce back against at a team like the Rangers who are really committed defensively.”
Evgeni Malkin’s power-play goal with 1:41 to go in the third period clinched the victory, capping a wild night that saw the veteran Rangers fall apart after taking what should have been a game-winning lead.
“We just got too loose,” said Rangers centre Chris Drury. “We haven’t been that loose all year. But that team, with all their fire power, they’ll make you pay.”
Petr Sykora, Marian Hossa, Pascal Dupuis and Jarkko Ruutu also scored for the Penguins but it was their 20-year-old captain that starred on this night. No. 87 was a threat on every shift. His slap shot from the point deflected off Malkin and in for the winner, Crosby’s arms raising to the shaking rafters in celebration.
“He was phenomenal tonight,” said Therrien, who should be used to it by now. “He generated a lot of scoring chances. He’s tough to play against. He drew a lot of attention on the ice because of his work ethic and because of his speed. I thought he played really well.”
Crosby generated the winner and also drew the penalty that gave Pittsburgh the power play, Straka interfering with him as he was trying to break away.
“He’s so tough to contain with his speed,” Therrien said of Crosby. “There are times that a player has no choice but to hook him.”
Drury, Straka, Scott Gomez and Sean Avery scored for the Rangers, who will kick themselves for letting this one get away. Jaromir Jagr added two assists in his first playoff game in Pittsburgh since leaving town seven years ago.
“In the playoffs, once it’s midnight, the most important game is the next game, whether you win 1-0 or lose like this,” said Drury. “We’ll be back Sunday (Game 2, 2 p.m.).”
Henrik Lundqvist stopped 21 of 26 shots while Marc-Andre Fleury made 20 saves on 24 shots – both goalies allowing more goals than usual although four of the nine goals were off skates.
“I thought Fleury was good,” said Therrien. “It was a tough game not only for Marc-Andre but also Lundqvist. Lundqvist gave up five goals tonight but he looked good. There were fluky goals on both sides.”
Playing their first home game in exactly two weeks, the Penguins were greeted to the ice by a boisterous, sellout crowd of 17,132 all wearing white. The old Winnipeg Jets “white-out” was apparently at the urging of Sid The Kid. Not only does he do it all on the ice but now he’s helping out the game presentation staff.
His team came out hard, the nine-day layoff not looking like a factor. Only a superb pad save by Lundqvist on Ryan Malone in the early stages kept the game scoreless. The Rangers didn’t get their first shot on goal until 8:45.
“I like the way we started, we dictated the game right from the start,” said Therrien. “The first half of the period we were all over them with our speed and our intensity.”
Then they got a break, scoring on their third shot on goal when Straka’s pass in front deflected off Penguins defenceman Sergei Gonchar and in for a power-play goal at 13:40. The Rangers had no business being ahead but now they were looking confident.
It carried into the second period, Drury doubling his team’s lead 1:52 into the frame with a deflection that needed video review. Just 1:45 later Avery completely silenced the crowd when he broke in on a 2-on-1 and beat Fleury under his right arm with a wrist shot that probably should have been stopped. It was 3-0 and the home fans were stunned.
“It’s never fun to be down 3-0, but we were talking on the bench, saying ‘stay positive, anything can happen,”‘ Hossa said.
Pittsburgh’s answer to Avery got his team in the game, the agitator Ruutu bouncing a pass off Rangers blue-liner Michal Rozsival at 8:13. The fans were still on their feet when Dupuis scored 14 seconds later, rifling a one-timer top corner after a perfect backhand feed from Crosby.
“Those bang-bang goals are tough – especially for the road team,” said Drury. “The crowd is going crazy… It’s a huge swing.”
The Penguins smelled blood and they didn’t hold back. They came out like guns a blazing in the third period and it paid off at 4:40 when Hossa’s pass attempt deflected off Scott Gomez and through Lundqvist’s five-hole.
It was bedlam at Mellon Arena and it was about to get even louder. Just 20 seconds after the Hossa goal Pittsburgh took its first lead of the game, Sykora polishing off a cross-crease pass from Malkin with a tap-in goal. Four unanswered goals by the Penguins and the Rangers looked like they had no answer.
Then a former Penguin had a clutch shift, Jagr powering into the Pittsburgh zone and backhanding a pass from behind the net that found a Gomez one-timer that beat Fleury top corner on the glove side at 10:04. Tie game and a great one at that.
That set up the Crosby-Malkin heroics. Won’t be the last time.
Notes: Penguins veteran winger Gary Roberts (groin) missed his third straight game, deciding after the morning skate that he wasn’t yet ready to return. Adam Hall once again took his spot in the lineup. Kris Beech, Jeff Taffe and Darryl Sydor were healthy scratches … The Rangers dressed tough guy Colton Orr for the first time in the playoffs. He bumped Ryan Hollweg out of the lineup. Marek Malik, Petr Prucha and Jason Strudwick were also scratches … Pittsburgh is 3-0 all-time in playoff series with the Rangers, defeating them in 1989, ’92 and ’96. Friday’s win pushed their record to 13-3 against the Rangers all-time in the playoffs.