Patience and change can be perceived as complete opposites, but the Penguins demonstrated that both approaches can be simultaneously applied to achieve the desired results in their 3-0 victory over the Rangers in New York.
The Penguins (4-3-0) rebounded from Tuesday’s ugly 4-1 home loss to the Islanders and now have two of their four wins this season against the Rangers. Also, Pittsburgh has won six in a row against its Atlantic Division rival and nine of the last 11 times the teams have met at Madison Square Garden.
Larger trends aside, though, Thursday night was about steady growth for 21-year-old defenseman Simon Despres and a successful adjustment for the Penguins’ previously stagnant power play.
Despres, a 2009 first-round draft pick still finding his comfort level in the NHL, set up Evgeni Malkin’s first-period goal with an accurate long-distance pass and capped the scoring with a gorgeous breakaway tally in the third. James Neal and the power play accounted for the Penguins’ second goal, as the winger took advantage of his removal from the point to redirect a Sidney Crosby feed early in the final frame.
In goal, the Penguins turned to Tomas Vokoun for his third start of the season, and the 36-year-old made 28 saves for his second win over the Rangers in less than two weeks. The 14-year NHL veteran also helped the Pens claim a 6-3 victory in New York on Jan. 20.
Vokoun didn’t make any spectacular or extraordinary saves, but he once again did an exemplary job controlling rebounds and making life easier for his teammates by limiting goalmouth scrambles for the puck.
The Penguins entered the season planning to give Vokoun a generous helping of playing time during this compressed season, and the team has similar stuck to the script with Despres. His ice time was again limited in comparison with blueline brethren Kris Letang, Paul Martin and Brooks Orpik, but Despres’ considerable puck skills were on display against the Rangers (3-4-0) in the opening minutes.
After Letang ripped a one-timer from the slot wide, he re-gathered the puck and gave it to Despres at center point. Despres pivoted and fed Malkin, who teed up a slapper from the right hash marks that blazed past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist 1:24 into the game.
It wasn’t all wonderful for Despres and fellow rookie defenseman Robert Bortuzzo, who both committed memorable turnovers in the middle of the ice that directly led to Rangers’ scoring opportunities. Bortuzzo took the place of Ben Lovejoy, who stepped in for the injured Matt Niskanen Tuesday night but was scratched in New York along with forward Eric Tangradi.
The big news of Wednesday’s off-day was that the Penguins moved Neal from the left point, where he had been stationed from training camp until this week. Neal set up near the net on Pittsburgh’s fifth power play of the night, which carried over from the second period into the third, and he cashed in for the all-important second goal.
Crosby, who had a team-best six shots, rifled a hard pass from the top of the right circle to the stick of Neal for his deft tip through his own legs and over Lundqvist’s shoulder. The strike, just 28 seconds into the third, pushed Neal’s team-leading goal total to five.
A Rangers power play ironically led to Despres’ first goal of the season, and second in 23 NHL games. After Anton Stralman’s point drive rang off the post to Vokoun’s left, the puck hopped out to center ice as Despres’ hooking minor expired. Pascal Dupuis tracked down the loose puck and tossed it across to Despres, who flipped a backhand shot past Lundqvist with 9:37 left in regulation.
The Penguins, who outshot the Rangers 29-28, host New Jersey at 1 p.m. Saturday to begin a two-game weekend.