After Danton Heinen scored to give the Penguins a 5-4 lead with 8:58 left in the third period vs. the New York Rangers in Game 3 of their playoff series Saturday, something odd happened:
Playoff hockey broke out.
The Penguins played below the Rangers’ goal line as much as possible, with Sidney Crosby having a particularly memorable shift in that regard.
Penguins clogged the neutral zone when the Rangers got the puck and approached. At least one forward stayed high.
It looked like a trap. I’m not certain, because it’s confusing to see those uniforms do that.
The Penguins managed score and situation. They settled for winning. They got away from their usual ego-driven, stubborn “this is how we play” mentality.
Hallelujah. Rinse and repeat.
It was a welcome change from what happened in the first half of the second period, when the Penguins saw the 4-1 lead they held at the first intermission rapidly evaporate. The Rangers wound up pulling even with 4:01 left in the second period.
In that first half of the second period, the Penguins didn’t adopt a more defensive posture or take a shot toward New York’s net. You’d think it would be one or the other, or preferably some combination, but not neither. It was the Penguins’ worst stretch of play all season.
Making the paucity of shots more dumbfounding is that the Rangers had just inserted their second-string goalie, Alexander Georgiev. For Georgiev, the waiting was the hardest part.
Well, that and Heinen’s game-winning goal. Georgiev should have stopped it.
This series hasn’t exactly been a goaltending festival. Coach Mike Sullivan and the Penguins players praise Louis Dominque’s performance because they have to.
But Domingue has allowed nine goals in his two starts. He’s stopped 67 shots out of 76 in those games, a meager save percentage of .882.
But Domingue’s a good story, a good quote and, most important, the last man standing.
Here’s betting Monday’s Game 4 determines the series winner.
If the Penguins win, they bleed the series out.
If the Rangers win and if presumptive Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin doesn’t once again drip brown all over the blue paint, they win the series.
But, wow, was Shesterkin rotten on Saturday. Four goals allowed on 15 shots before he got yanked. Two goals were bad, another wasn’t great.
A few suggestions for the Penguins:
• Don’t pair Kris Letang and Mike Matheson. Each tries too much. Each gets in the other’s way. The Penguins are better when one or the other is on the ice. Not together. Letang and Matheson were split for much of Saturday’s third period and the positive trickledown was evident. (Brian Dumoulin’s return from injury solves that.)
• Use the second power play more. That unit netted twice on Saturday. They keep it simple. The first unit was horrific, coughing up a short-handed goal. Use what’s working. Forget prior allegiance. When the second power play cools, resumes the usual division of duty.
• Evgeni Malkin is too quiet. The bottom six exploded Saturday. Crosby’s line had an excellent third period. Malkin needs to do his share.
• Scratch Brian Boyle. Dress Drew O’Connor. Boyle is too slow to play against the Rangers. He gets caught up the ice on odd-man breaks, including on one of the Rangers’ goals Saturday.
• Domingo has to play better. You can’t coach that, or force that, or coax that. But it must happen. Shesterkin will improve. Domingo must, too. Winning 7-4 is rare. (But Domingo is already a Pittsburgh icon. The backup anything is a big man in this town.)
• More than anything, the Penguins must manage score and situation like they did down the stretch Saturday. That’s what won the game.
How this series plays out is anyone’s guess. It’s crazy.
Evan Rodrigues not only scored twice Saturday, he almost put the puck in his own net from 200 feet with Domingue pulled during a delayed penalty.
Crosby had an insane between-the-legs assist on Jeff Carter’s empty-net goal.
Kris Letang had one of the most spectacular, long-form turnovers in franchise history. It led to the Rangers’ shorty.
Jason Zucker played, delivered a game-high seven hits, generally performed well, and didn’t get hurt.
When the going gets weird, the weird turns pro.