The Pittsburgh Penguins had to know they couldn’t hold the New York Rangers scoreless forever. At least, they had to be fairly certain that was the case.
New York did break through a couple times Wednesday night, so it’s a good thing the Penguins continued their recent upward trend and pummeled the Rangers in Game 4 of their second-round Stanley Cup playoff series. Pittsburgh prevailed 4-2 at Madison Square Garden, its third consecutive victory after dropping the series opener.
With another win in Friday’s Game 5 at Consol Energy Center, the Pens can clinch a berth in the Eastern Conference finals for the second year in a row. But before we look to the future, Wednesday’s performance deserves further exploration, as it might’ve represented the pinnacle of Pittsburgh’s playoffs to date.
The Penguins outshot the Rangers 27-15 and out-attempted them 66-38 despite defending a lead for much of the night. However, unlike their passive approach in Game 3 after taking a 2-0 lead, the Pens continued to push the attack when prudent.
That method proved most effective on the clinching goal, scored by Chris Kunitz at 14:04 of the third, just 57 seconds after Mats Zuccarello squeezed a backhand shot through Marc-Andre Fleury to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 3-2. Two shifts after Zuccarello energized the Garden crowd, Sidney Crosby chipped the puck into the corner for a charging Evgeni Malkin, who wheeled behind the net and centered for Kunitz alone in front.
It was fitting that the Penguins’ top line put the game out of reach, as it controlled play en route to five combined points. Crosby set up Malkin’s turnaround backhand goal at 2:31 of the first, establishing that Pittsburgh’s top guns brought all their firepower to the rink. Malkin was especially dominant, finishing with 14 attempted shots and countless sharp passes.
Still, the Penguins had a difficult time denting Rangers star goalie Henrik Lundqvist until late. His stout play made it possible for Carl Hagelin to streak through the neutral zone – taking advantage of a poor Matt Niskanen defensive read – and gunning a shot past Fleury’s glove. The tying goal came 5:30 into the second and broke Fleury’s remarkable shutout streak at 145:30, the longest of his career.
Pittsburgh got a little loose at times in the second, but New York couldn’t beat Fleury again to take the lead. Instead, the Rangers’ impotent power play handed the edge back to the Penguins with 1:33 to go in the second. Kris Letang broke up a neutral zone pass while killing a Malkin penalty, sending Brian Gibbons in on a breakaway. He couldn’t get a clean shot off under pressure, but Brandon Sutter followed up to bury his fourth goal of the playoffs – the Penguins’ second shorthanded tally of the postseason.
Jussi Jokinen has also provided key scoring depth lately, and he continued to do so with his team-leading sixth goal 7:02 into the third. The veteran collected his own rebound, whirled around the goal and whipped a forehand shot that deflected off Rangers defenseman Marc Staal and under Lundqvist.
Getting some breathing room was important, since Brooks Orpik had to abort his return to the ice after missing five games. He apparently aggravated his lower-body injury and had to call it a night in the first intermission, which left the Penguins with just five defensemen. To make up for No. 44’s absence, Paul Martin played a whopping 30:05 and Letang skated 27:56. In a relative rarity, Rob Scuderi also topped 20 minutes on the blueline.
The Penguins will have a day to recover before their opportunity to eliminate the Rangers. Faceoff for Game 5 is set for 7 p.m.
Notes: Both teams’ power plays continue to sputter, although the Rangers’ scoreless streak with the advantage has reached 35 opportunities. The Penguins went 0 for 3 and are 1 for 11 in the series…The 15 shots allowed were a season-low total by a Pittsburgh opponent.