If the Rangers draw the Penguins in the first round of the playoffs, they’ll want to use Friday night’s game at the Garden as their game plan.
The Rangers were a force from the face-off and never gave up, scoring three quick first-period goals that kept the Penguins at a safe distance all night before coming away with a convincing 5- 1.
There are two more regular-season meetings between the clubs on the horizon – and potentially a whole post-season series. Only one point now separates the second-placed Penguins and third-placed Rangers, who still have two wins and a game in hand, in the Metropolitan Division standings.
“These games are important because if you look at the standings, we’re fighting for second place right now,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said ahead of the win. “Caroline has a little jump, but things can change quickly. We play Pittsburgh two of the next three games and then we play them a week and a half later. So we play them three times in two weeks.
It was the ultimate rebounding performance for the Rangers, who were hampered across the Hudson River on Tuesday in a 7-4 loss to the Devils. So Rangers responded with one of their best wins of the season, playing a decisive game that at times made the Penguins feel like they were in slow motion.
Post Sports+ members, register ask Mollie Walker to text you the final word on Rangers and respond with your thoughts and questions. Not yet a Sports+ member? Try it now.
The Penguins were without Evgeni Malkin, who was sidelined with an illness unrelated to COVID, although the star center probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the way the Rangers skated.
“Part of it was the [New] Jersey game, but also a big game against those guys,” said Mika Zibanejad, who had three assists and surpassed 500 career points in the process. “We knew we were better than that. We are better than that. We obviously want to play well and have our best game every night, but that’s not going to happen.
“I think the way we reacted tonight was a good sign.”
It took just over four minutes in the first half for Rangers to take a 3-0 lead.
Alexis Lafrenière and Filip Chytil managed a two-to-one race. That allowed Lafreniere, the 2020 first overall pick, to extend his career-high point streak to five games with a goal 2:07 from first. Just under two minutes later, Chris Kreider scored on a breakaway from the bench to double Rangers’ advantage.
The new-look top line of Kreider, Zibanejad and Frank Vatrano kept the pressure on. Zibanejad fed Vatrano on the doorstep at 4:16, prompting Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan to use his timeout to try and calm his team down.
Pittsburgh came close to getting in the first period when a Jacob Trouba turnover allowed Danton Heinen and Evan Rodrigues of the Penguins to push the puck over the goal line. The referees, however, waived it immediately. The play was eventually reviewed, but it was determined that Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin’s pads had been pushed and the scoreless call on the ice was upheld.
Shesterkin had what looked to be one of his lightest workloads of the season, stopping 20 of 21 shots he faced to help Rangers improve to 41-19-5. The Penguins’ lone goal came six minutes into center Jeff Carter’s final period on the power play, but Andrew Copp’s first goal as a Ranger capped the scoring late in regulation.
After Kreider went 4-0 with his third shorthanded goal of the season, Penguins goalie Tristan Jarry was ripped off for only the second time this season. Casey DeSmith came on as relief for Jarry, but the backup collided with Brian Dumoulin of the Penguins and headed for the locker room after recording 4:19. As a result, Jarry was forced to return.
“When we play our best hockey, it’s because we’re decisive,” Kreider said. “We move our feet and take away time and space and make it difficult for the other team. I think that’s the most important thing for this group.