NEW YORK – Petr Prucha’s clutch goal was a month in the making.
Banished to the role of Broadway extra, Prucha returned to the Rangers’ lineup in a big way Wednesday night by scoring late in the third period in New York’s 3-2 shootout victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Prucha had been a healthy scratch for the previous 10 games – dating to Nov. 8 at Washington – and turned down the Rangers’ request over the weekend to go down to the AHL on a conditioning assignment. Confident he was fit enough to play, New York coach Tom Renney put him in and got rewarded.
“I felt pretty nervous before this game,” the 26-year-old Prucha said. “I felt like it was my last chance to show that I can play. I am really glad that I scored.
“I knew I’m ready for a game. That kept my confidence higher than before.”
Prucha had 30 goals as a rookie with the Rangers during the 2005-06 season, but has had only 30 since. This marked his first point in nine games this season and his first goal in 21 since Jan. 31.
Scott Gomez, who assisted on both Rangers goals to reach 400 in the NHL, fired wide but the puck bounced off the end boards to Prucha for the putback that beat sprawling goalie Dany Sabourin with 5:57 left.
“He was a very hungry hockey player tonight,” Renney said. “He was rewarded for that.”
Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Fredrik Sjostrom had shootout goals for the Rangers, who allowed only defenceman Kris Letang to score in the tiebreaker.
Henrik Lundqvist earned his NHL-leading 16th win and has given up only three goals in 19 shootout shots. New York, 7-1 in the tiebreaker, bounced back from a 4-0 loss to Florida.
New York avoided its second straight defeat following a three-game winning streak, that included two shootout wins on a Florida trip. Five of the Rangers’ last six victories have been by shootout.
“I am lucky to have such great scorers on the team who score every time,” Lundqvist said. “Every once in a while I let one in, too, but it doesn’t really matter because they’re on fire.”
Just as they did Oct. 25 in a shootout win, the Rangers erased Pittsburgh’s 2-0 lead late. Zherdev got New York even then by scoring with 8.1 seconds left in regulation, and started this comeback with a second-period goal.
Defenceman Mark Eaton scored for the first time in nearly three years, and Jordan Staal added a goal for the Penguins, who fell six points behind the Atlantic Division-leading Rangers. New York has won seven straight regular-season home games against Pittsburgh.
Sidney Crosby set up Eaton’s long-awaited 17th NHL goal and trails teammate Evgeni Malkin in the NHL scoring race by four points.
Eaton scored for the first time in 91 games, dating to April 6, 2006, and had Crosby’s playmaking skills to thank. Crosby intercepted a pass by defenceman Dmitri Kalinin and carried the puck behind the net. Without breaking stride, Crosby found Eaton in front with 6:04 left in the first.
“It’s a frustrating loss,” Eaton said. “They were able to capitalize on the rest of their chances and we couldn’t.”
Until Eaton’s goal, Crosby’s action mostly involved a running feud with Rangers enforcer Colton Orr. It started less than three minutes in when Crosby reacted after the whistle to a hit. Not much came of that, but Eric Godard dropped the gloves with Orr after the ensuing faceoff.
Crosby engaged Orr again after a hit against the boards. Crosby jabbed at Orr with his stick as they skated toward centre ice until Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik hit Orr from behind with a shoulder. A penalty was called on Orpik, and then another when Orpik tripped Orr.
“It’s motivating sometimes when guys are coming after you like that,” Crosby said. “It’s not a guy you expect. I don’t know if that’s what he needed to do to prove his toughness, to come after me.”
The Rangers had the long power play shortened when they were caught with too many men on the ice. It was during that 4-on-4 play that Eaton scored.
Pittsburgh doubled its lead 9:35 into the third period after weathering pressure in its zone. Rob Scuderi’s slap shot from the right point struck Staal and caromed in for his eighth goal. Lundqvist angrily swept the puck out of the crease.
The lead was cut in half just 1:21 later, when Gomez’s slap shot was tipped in front by Zherdev for his ninth goal and New York’s first in 108 minutes 52 seconds.
Notes: Eaton played in his 400th NHL game. … The Rangers went 0-for-3 on the power play and have scored twice in 24 chances over six games. … Pittsburgh held a 31-27 shots advantage.