Gary Roberts and Mark Recchi, the oldest players on a Pittsburgh team led by teenage scoring champion Sidney Crosby, scored goals and the Penguins completed one of the biggest single-season turnarounds in NHL history by beating the New York Rangers 2-1 Saturday night.
Despite losing, the Rangers secured sixth place in the Eastern Conference and avoided a first-round rematch against New Jersey when Tampa Bay lost a 3-2 shootout decision to Atlanta. The Rangers, who ended with 94 points to seventh-place Tampa Bay’s 93, will play the Thrashers in a first-round series while the Lightning take on the Devils.
“The higher the seed, the bigger the accomplishment,” Rangers coach Tom Renney said. “Beyond that, we’re going to prepare for Atlanta. We want to play anybody, we don’t care who it is. Now that we’ve got that determined, away we go.”
The same goes for the Penguins – away they go, and to Ottawa for the first round.
Despite winning, the Penguins lost home-ice advantage as Ottawa beat Boston 6-3 to secure fourth place in the Eastern Conference and keep Pittsburgh at No. 5, even though the Penguins won their two games in Ottawa this season. The Penguins open the post-season in Ottawa next week.
“Obviously, you’re kind of scoreboard-watching, so maybe there’s a bit of a letdown when you see them (the Senators) go up 6-3,” Roberts said. “But we were able to stay strong enough to win the game, even if it wasn’t our best effort. I think we’re all pretty excited about what’s next to come.”
While the Penguins won’t start the playoffs at home, they reached them for the first time since 2001 by going 47-24-11 – a 47-point improvement from their 22-win season of a year ago, when they were 15th and last in the Eastern Conference. The turnaround is the fourth-best, by points, in NHL history.
Crosby was a big part of that at age 19, accumulating 120 points in his sophomore season to become the youngest scoring champion in NHL history. He ended with six points more than San Jose’s Joe Thornton, who had three points in his final game to finish with 114.
Crosby assisted on goals by the 41-year-old Roberts and the 39-year-old Recchi, even though he is less than half the age of both.
“I’m proud of it, but it’s not why I play the game,” Crosby said of his scoring championship. “Maybe I’ll have more time to reflect on it when the season’s over.”
The Rangers ended the regular season by going 13-3-4 in their final 20 games, a big swing from their five-game losing streak that capped the 2005-06 season. They were swept by New Jersey in the first round of the playoffs after that.
“We wanted to win this game for sure, but I would say this is the first game in three or four months when it wasn’t such a big deal when you lose it,” Jaromir Jagr said. “You don’t want to lose it, but next week we start up again just like the past 20 games.”
Roberts made it 1-0 on a power play less than a minute into the second period, taking advantage of a Brad Isbister tripping penalty late in the first to score his 20th goal. Crosby threw the puck toward the net and Roberts went to his backhand to lift it past goalie Henrik Lundqvist.
Recchi scored his 24th goal, and second in three games after going 20 games without a goal, by scoring on another power play late in the second. Erik Christensen passed to Crosby behind the goal line and Crosby steered a pass to Recchi, whose put it under the crossbar to beat Lundqvist, who had gone down low to contest the shot.
“Both goals were quick plays in front of the net, and that’s usually where you get goals,” Roberts said. “We’re old guys but we’re smart, we go to the front of the net and pick up some garbage.”
Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury turned aside 28 of 29 shots to finish with a 40-16-9 record. The No. 1 draft pick in 2003 had only 17 victories in 71 career games going into this season.
“He was the difference in the game,” Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. “He played real solid. It’s been a good regular season for us.”
Lundqvist, 8-1-1 in his previous 10 games, played another strong game but lost despite making 28 saves.
Notes: The Penguins presented their team awards before the game. Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal shared the rookie of the year award, even though Malkin is favoured to win the award in the league. Crosby was chosen by his teammates as their MVP. … The Penguins went 5-1-2 against the division-rival Rangers and 20-9-3 against Atlantic Division opponents. … Staal had 29 goals, the same as brother Eric Staal had for Carolina.