Welcome back to the postseason, New York Rangers. The intensity, the pace, the referees who keep both teams playing. And on and on.
It’s been half a decade since the Rangers were in the playoffs, and their first game back in the Stanley Cup chase was an instant reminder of why postseason hockey is so compelling and heartbreaking for the losing team.
The Rangers were that team on Tuesday when they lost an overtime treble to the Pittsburgh Penguins 4-3 in a game that set numerous playoff records. After three periods of scoreless hockey in the third half and the first two overtimes, the Penguins’ Evgeni Malkin deflected a point shot from teammate John Marino past Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin to end 5 minutes and 58 seconds into the third overtime the longest opening game of a playoff series since 1939.
“It’s a playoff game against one of our rivals,” said Penguins right winger Bryan Rust, who had one goal and two assists. “We knew it was going to be a good, fast, hard-hitting game and that’s what we got.”
The game — the longest ever played at what is now Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 — featured just about everything: power-play goals, shorthanded goals, goals reversed on review, shots hitting the goalposts, a goaltender , who hobbled off the ice with an obvious injury, and near miss after near miss after near miss.
The Rangers and Penguins combined for 151 shots on goal. Shesterkin, who led all goaltenders in goals against average during the regular season, saved 79 shots, the second-most in a playoff game.
Shesterkin fell short of the all-time record for saves in a game set in 2020 by the Columbus Blue Jackets’ Joonas Korpisalo, who made 85 saves in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. This game was also the first game of a first-round series. Shesterkin was the one eighth goaltender in NHL history and first Ranger to make more than 70 saves in a game.
Looking back, there were plenty of near misses that could have sent fans home much sooner than 11:48 p.m. when Malkin scored the game-winning goal. The greatest opportunity came just over three minutes from the end of regular time when Rangers appeared to have scored an opener.
Rangers winger Kaapo Kakko raced toward goal while Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin ran after. dumoline seemed to push or lean on Kakko’s back as he crashed into Penguin goaltender Casey DeSmith. Kakko slipped past the net and tapped the puck to teammate Filip Chytil, who shot it into an unguarded net.
But the Penguins challenged the goal and after a video review the referee determined that Kakko had not been shoved and thus disrupted Smith and the goal came off the board.
“It was a three overtime game so there was a lot of games to look back on,” Rangers center Ryan Strome said afterwards. “It was a 4-3 game but they scored the one goal that counted.”
The rangers were younger and less experienced than the penguins. Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are the only players left over from the team’s last postseason trip in 2017. Shesterkin had a fabulous season but had only played in one postseason game.
The Penguins, on the other hand, have been in the postseason for 16 straight years. The triumvirate of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Malkin has played nearly 500 playoff games, all with Pittsburgh, and won three Stanley Cups combined.
The Rangers — the league’s sixth-youngest team — came out like the hungrier team in the first period, throwing their weight around and getting to the pucks quicker than the Penguins, who have the fourth-oldest roster.
Rangers defenseman Adam Fox started the goal about halfway through the section when he took a pass from Zibanejad and fired a wrist shot near the blue line that sailed over DeSmith’s right shoulder.
The Rangers’ exuberance overwhelmed her at times. With less than two minutes in the first period, defenseman Ryan Lindgren was sent off for two minutes after shouldering Pittsburgh winger Rickard Rakell in the jaw. Rakell’s head broke and he fell onto the ice and had to be helped down. Lindgren initially received a five-minute penalty, which was reduced to two minutes.
In the second third, Rangers picked up where they left off. Just over three minutes into the third, Strome ran behind the net and passed to Andrew Copp, who buried a close-range shot while sliding towards the net on one knee.
But just as the Rangers seemed to settle in, the penguins found their footing. Less than 90 seconds later, Crosby passed the puck in front of the net, where Jake Guentzel, the team’s top scorer, tapped it into the net.
Seven minutes later, after cutting through the top of the zone unguarded, Crosby again found Guentzel. Shesterkin barely had a chance to react.
Rangers regained the lead after Patrik Nemeth was sent off for his second penalty of the game. During the power play in Pittsburgh, Zibanejad took the puck in a faceoff, fought his way up the ice and found Kreider barreling down the left side. Kreider forged DeSmith and scored with a backhand while shorthanded.
However, before Nemeth could return from the box, Rangers defender Jacob Trouba was also sent off. With two men down, Rangers almost missed Nemeth’s penalty. But Malkin passed Letang, who turned the puck to Rust to level the score on three goals each.
The Penguins beat Rangers 25-8 in the second period.
Neither team scored in the third period nor in the first two overtime periods, and there were no penalties either. As the game progressed, players were slower to get onto their bench, their passes weren’t as crisp, and they collided with each other more often.
Halfway through the second overtime, DeSmith limped off the ice and went to the locker room during a time out. He was replaced by Louis Domingue, who had only played two games that season. He stopped all 17 shots he faced.
After the game, said Domingue that he ate a meal of spicy pork and broccoli between the first and second breaks. “Not the best,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to go in.”
With sweat-soaked jerseys and skates, the players looked depressed. Guentzel said he and his teammates ate bananas and energy bars between periods.
“I’m feeling great,” he told Sportsnet before heading to the dressing room after the game.
He and the Penguins felt that no doubt and relief after Malkin found the net with the game winner.