The pause in the NHL season sucks. It should be the playoffs but it isn’t. While we sit around and wait for sports to come back, let’s take a trip down memory lane.
Four years ago the Penguins road to being back-to-back champions begun. I’ll have game recaps ready for each game through the 2016 playoffs.
Could the third time finally be the charm?
Everything was working against the Guinos tonight. Marc-Andre Fleury, status continually in flux with HCMS saying he was a gametime decision. Matt Murray, despite being an absolute animal down the stretch, was hurt in the final game in Philly. Jeff Zatkoff who hasn’t started since February 20th had the net for game one. It felt like no matter how hot this team was going down the stretch, the demons of the past just couldn’t be exercised. Especially since it was the Rangers. Again.
No matter, on the strength of Zatkoff playing outside of his goddamned mind and Patric Hornqvist’s HT, the Penguins helped all of us breathe a little easier, winning 5-2 and potentially making this series a bit less daunting with Lundqvist going down.
It’s only one and there’s still three (or 15 depending on your optimism) to go before this means anything.
Penguins vs. Rangers
Game One, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
Consol Energy Center
Watch the full game
As said above, HCMS kept his lineup tight until pregame. Turns out MAF was a late scratch and Tristan Jarry would backup Zatkoff.
Dear God, if Zatkoff got hurt or played poorly we may have been in for a world of hurt.
Odd decision to roll with seven defensemen. Shows Sullivan believes in the role Schultz has been playing in sheltered minutes. You figured he’d be the odd man out and one of Rust, Wilson, Rowney or Archibald would factor in on the fourth line. Especially with Geno still out, you have a couple of centers in the stable that could step in. Nevertheless.
McDonough out with a broken hand. Tough news for the Rags.
If you, like me (and don’t lie, you absolutely were) worried about Zatkoff being the game one starter, the first five-ish minutes should have quelled those anxieties.
While the first minute and a half were two teams feeling each other out, a side effect of each team having significant pieces out of their lineups, from about 17 minutes left until about 14-13 minutes left, Jeff Zatkoff kept this game even for the Pens to get their footing.
His first real test came from a turnover from Dumoulin and Cullen.
Dumo works it up the wall to Cullen and Cullen fails to clear the puck, giving Zuccarello a chance to keep the puck in and it eventually works to JT Miller and Zatkoff makes a solid blocker save.
Backbreaker if the Rangers score there.
Just about a minute later, arguably his most shining save of the game came.
A reversed puck shoots past Lovejoy who is tangled up with Eric Staal and the puck comes to his brother Marc pinching down the wall.
Sensing he has no room or time to do anything, he does the smart thing for once in his career and just tosses it at the net. Somehow either by some elite skill or pure luck, Jesper Fast deflects the puck (or has it deflect off of) from his skate right to Kevin Hayes but Zatkoff makes a stunning save.
Stalberg would take two penalties back-to-back, one for hooking that was an absolute dumpster fire of a power play for the Pens.
They struggled to gain the zone or establish any kind of possession, let alone get a shot on goal.
Couple minutes later, newly-reinstated official Tim Peel calls Stalberg for an illegal hit to the head which….it wasn’t.
We’ll take it.
Power play looks a lot stronger this time through but no dice. We’re still even.
Objectively, the hit to the head penalty was a weak call. Since this is the NHL and officials don’t want to have an impact on the outcome of the game they decided to do that thing where they absolutely have an impact on the game – by giving the team called for a weak penalty a power play.
Eric Fehr crashes the net with a Ranger on his back and once Lundqvist covers it, Fehr attempts to stop and brings up some snow into the face of a bent-over Lundqvist. Refs decide this is a place to give the Rangers their justice. Fehr heads off for unsportsmanlike conduct and all is apparently right in the world again.
The Pens kill it off with relative ease and actually come damn close to taking lead when the puck makes its way to Letang at the offensive blue line and a half shot for a deflection finds Hagelin’s stick and just goes over the net.
With under a minute to go, one of the more bizarre things we’ve seen in awhile happens.
Ian Cole gets everything on a shot from the point and it appears to catch Lundqvist up high. Hank goes down and he goes down hard. As much fun as it is to call out Lundqvist on his diva bullshit, this looks bad. To the point where he is writhing in pain on the ice and Consol Energy Center falls silent.
Upon watching the replay, it’s better but not by much.
Marc Staal’s stick somehow slips through Hank’s mask and catches him in the eye. Lundqvist gets some eyedrops, goes to see the trainer, everyone remembers he’s kind of a diva and the booing begins.
He remains in the game.
A decision he probably shouldn’t have made.
Just a few short seconds later, Patric Hornqvist opens the scoring the way he knows how.
GOAL: P. Hornqvist (1)
ASSISTS: C. Sheary (1), K. Letang (1)
Letang innocently dumps the puck in and Dan Girardi either thinks the period is over or WILDLY underestimates Conor Sheary’s speed. Sheary wins the race to the puck and he tries to send the puck to the front of the net and Lundqvist tries to block it. It deflects to the front and who else but Patric Hornqvist is crashing?
He taps it five-hole and the Pens have a 1-0 lead.
Good ending to an otherwise slow and pedestrian period for the Guinos.
Hank should’ve stayed out. Guessing the medical staff agreed with me. Antti Raanta came in for him to start the middle frame.
Two goalies that have never played in a Stanley Cup Playoff game in their careers facing off against one another, just like we all predicted!!
If this game wasn’t bizarre enough already, another sequence of weird happened about a minute and a half into the power play.
Coming through the neutral zone, Tanner Glass takes a whack at Nick Bonino who clearly was stung by the slash. To keep from turning the puck over in a high-danger area, Bonino attempts to get rid of it and wouldn’t you know it, it smacks Tanner Glass right in the face.
At this rate, I’m fully expecting someone to get hit by an anvil on an off day and Raanta to shit out banana peels that manage to kill Cullen in some MarioKart shenaniganery.
Aside from one attempt that went off the post, this wasn’t the kind of start you’d want the Penguins to have with a cold goalie coming in.
It took until 10:30 left for the Penguins get a real good look at Raanta. However, it wasn’t for any fault of the Penguins. The Rangers clearly want this series to be a slog. They don’t have the speed.
The “fourth line” of sorts put the puck deep and went to work, the puck was controlled in the corner and Fehr had a chance on the doorstep. No dice but the hard work and puck possession led to Dominic Moore having to hold up Kunhackl in an attempt to slow the Pens down.
Progress is progress, folks. No goals but the Penguins held the puck in the zone for nearly two full minutes until a shorthanded 2-on-1 caused the Penguins to need to take a penalty.
I’m no math guy but at this pace, they should have a power-play goal by the 2022 Eastern Conference second round.
Daley to the box for tripping up Rick Nash.
During the PK you went from being nervous about Zatkoff, to feeling ok about Zatkoff, to debating where the tattoo you would get in his honor should go.
A minute to go in the PK and Stepan gave Zuccarello the look of his life.
Coming in from the half wall, everyone focused on closing the middle and giving Stepan nothing. With the swagger of Sidney Crosby, Stepan sees Zuccarello sneaking in back-door at the top of the far circle and sneaks it through.
To the PK’s credit, they shift seamlessly but a combination of JEFF! and the PK, the puck stays out.
Zatkoff made a few more saves and the Pens got through the PK. Hero shit.
As an aside, if this goes the way we want it to, the legend of Jeff Zatkoff will live forever in the minds of Penguins fans. What a performance.
The second period would become the Rangers show in the back half.
That said, if it was the Rangers show, they were Taylor Swift and Jeff Zatkoff was Kanye and no, he was absolutely not going to let them finish.
Justin Schultz blows a tire leaving Ian Cole to deal with a 3-on-1 that features: Stalberg, Hayes, and Fast.
Sure, none of those names blow you away but god knows there’s enough skill there that a 3-on-1 probably means we’re gonna be tied as the end result.
Cole plays it well, keeping himself centered and letting Zatkoff take Stalberg who hesitates and ultimately decides to shoot. Zatkoff swallows it up and buddy boy, Beyonce had one of the best videos of all-time.
Just like you want – a couple of big saves from your goalie, a strong PK and you counter with a goal.
GOAL: S. Crosby (1)
ASSISTS: P. Hornqvist (1)
With the Rangers pressing, the Penguins do what you need to do in that situation: tighten up your defensive zone coverage, especially in the middle. As coaches say, “Protect the house.”
They do just that. Hornqvist, covering for Crosby who has shifted to winger responsibilities, blocks a shot from Girardi after Sid pressures.
Crosby immediately notices Hornqvist has the puck and he’s got a step on Girardi. Hornqvist with a beautiful saucer pass to spring Sid for the breakaway and like the ice-cold assassin Sid is, he stares down Raanta and snipes it right past his glove.
Another late goal would be the final exclamation point.
20 saves for Zatkoff through two periods. Unreal.
The final frame was akin to a boxer changing styles late in the match. Rope-a-dope wasn’t going to get you a win on points so you gotta go punch-for-punch and hope the knockout.
Here’s the issue, going punch-for-punch with a fast team like the Pens…it’s going to be a tough challenge.
The Rangers would get an early gift – Hagelin would get a double-minor for high-sticking and Cole would be sent off in the same sequence for roughing, giving them a 5-on-3.
As expected, the Rangers threatened and then cashed in.
GOAL: Stepan (1)
ASSISTS: Nash (1), Brassard (1)
They back the Penguins in, work the puck from low-to-high, from Brassard to Nash and to Stepan on the back door.
Kuhnhackl nearly interrupts the pass but it sneaks through and JEFF!’s shutout bid was over.
Still, nearly three minutes of Hagelin’s double-minor to kill. With it being 2-1 and Hagelin in the box for 2:58…you winced. The last two years have you gunshy. I get it. Maybe even three years if we want to count Boston.
These aren’t Dan Bylsma or Mike Johnston’s Penguins anymore, folks.
With the Rangers threatening to tie it up, Ben Lovejoy would clear a Jeff Zatkoff rebound with Boyle threatening to deposit it in the open net.
Then Kris Letang would spring Nick Bonino and Tom Kuhnhackl on a 2-on-1 shorthanded break.
Make no mistake, Nick Bonino makes this goal possible.
GOAL: Kuhnhackl (1)
ASSISTS: Bonino (1), Letang (2)
The little shoulder shimmy and dip gets both Yandle and Raanta to bite on the fake shot, giving Kuhnhackl the chance to open up and have nothing but a yawning cage to shoot at once Bonino slides it on over.
From there, the penalty was killed and the Penguins took over.
Eric Staal and his oversized helmet would impede with Jeff Zatkoff to give the Pens their fifth power play of the evening and it was finally time for this unit to get something going.
GOAL: Hornqvist (2)
ASSISTS: Kessel (1), Crosby (1)
Crosby, looking to set up Kessel from the half wall, would throw the puck in front, it would bounce of Kessel’s stick causing a mess of humanity in front of Raanta. From this mess of humanity, the puck would squeak through his pads and start to trickle into the net.
Hornqvist made damn sure.
Call your realtors, Rags. The net-front is Hornqvist’s property and he ain’t selling.
The Rangers would challenge but it was determined to be a good goal.
However, they weren’t going to just lay down and die.
GOAL: Stepan (2)
ASSISTS: Boyle (1), Zuccarello (1)
Boyle does a good job sucking in the defensemen as he cuts through the slot looking for a shooting lane. Once he throws one on net, Zatkoff gives up a rebound and Stepan finds the open space upstairs and it’s a two-goal game again.
Rangers would attempt their punch-for-punch strategy with the Pens trying to score off the rush. As Zatkoff had all game – he stood up, giving them nothing.
To his credit, so would Raanta as this strategy gave the Pens a handful of odd-man rushes and partial breakaways.
With nothing to lose, Vigneault would pull Raanta with just under three minutes to go but Hornqvist completed the hat trick and home-ice advantage started this series the way it needed to go.
GOAL: Hornqvist (3)
ASSISTS: Crosby (2), Daley (1)
Good pressure from the Pens in the defensive zone, Crosby starts the breakout wide and hits Hornqvist streaking who makes no mistake.
- Full credit to Zatkoff, chances are he had some advance notice that he would be starting but he made the damn most of it. 35 saves and looked really good doing it.
- That said…history dictates this was a one-off. Lot of adrenaline and the team played their asses off in front of him. There were very few second chances and the Penguins as a team blocked 22 shots to the Rangers 10.
- As Pens fans, let’s hope the Rangers’ strategy of going punch-for-punch with the Pens sticks. The only way I see the Rangers getting out of this one is what they did through the first 40 minutes. Sit back, wait for mistakes, and capitalized.
- It’ll be interesting to see if Geno is back for game two. Some rumblings he could be and that could explain HCMS’s decision to go with seven defensemen.
Game two on the 16th.