Pittsburgh Penguins Outlast New York Rangers

Jan 21, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin (62) and right wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrate after Kessel scored his second goal of the game against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
Jan 21, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Penguins left wing Carl Hagelin (62) and right wing Phil Kessel (81) celebrate after Kessel scored his second goal of the game against the Philadelphia Flyers during the third period at the CONSOL Energy Center. The Penguins won 4-3. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

Sidney Crosby and Carl Hagelin led the Pittsburgh Penguins past the New York Rangers, 3-2, in a tight overtime matchup that could very well be a preview of the playoffs.

The Pittsburgh Penguins edged past the New York Rangers, 3-2, in a game with monumental playoff implications. Matt Cullen, Phil Kessel, and Sidney Crosby scored the goals for the Pens, proving their resiliency is no joke.

Brian Dumoulin and Olli Maatta were the regulars missing from the Penguins’ lineup. Both defensemen have shorter-term injuries; Dumoulin’s sustained against the Detroit Red Wings during yesterday’s blowout and Maatta’s lingering for longer.

Chris Kunitz, who was also injured in yesterday’s game in Detroit, was in the lineup, taking his usual spot on the first line’s left wing. Derrick Pouliot also rejoined the lineup after finding himself the odd defenseman out. Pouliot slotted in next to Ben Lovejoy on the second defense pairing.

Four goals, eight assists, and two career games highlighted Pittsburgh’s second line’s performance yesterday. Looking to follow up on that momentum, the line of Carl HagelinNick BoninoPhil Kessel did their best to attack hard and fast despite early pressure by the Rangers.

Hagelin has tried to make an impact against his original team in every game since they traded him. Looking to solve his former goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, Hagelin had several good chances and made strong defensive moves early on.

However, the Rangers were the ones to strike first. Eric Staal, who was picked up from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trade deadline, got his second goal in the New York blue just under five minutes into the game.

Before tonight, the Rangers were 31-5-4 when scoring first. On the other hand, the Penguins allowed the first goal yesterday as well but ended up drubbing the Red Wings 7-2. Before head coach Mike Sullivan took over, the Penguins were dismal when they fell behind; now, they’re impressive comeback kids.

Slow starts have been common for the Penguins but they’ve increasingly been able to regain the lost ground and play a strong second and third period. While their consistently lagging play in the first has come back to bite them, their massive improvement in the latter parts of the game is a factor that cannot be ignored.

Following Staal’s goal, Hagelin and his linemates seemed to be more determined than ever. Those three players, often backed up by the top d-pair of Kris Letang and Trevor Daley, were consistently the best unit in the first period (and for several games now, really).

Both teams played hard and even dirty at times. Conor Sheary received a cross-check to the head, which went uncalled, and Daley was cross-checked into the boards; in retaliation, Sidney Crosby laid an iffy hit on Rick Nash just before Letang was sent to the penalty box for slashing. Hard hits along the board and cheap shots in open ice are not uncommon when these teams play. 

The penalty on Letang was killed off and the Pens put immediate pressure on Lundqvist. Matt Cullen scored his 13th goal of the season and Pouliot nabbed the primary assist in his first game back.

Beau Bennett, who also recently returned to the lineup, made a good move on Lundqvist as the period wound down, but neither he nor Eric Fehr could cash in on the attempt. The first period ended in a 1-1 tie.

The Penguins are the league’s top team in the “sandwich stanza,” with a +27 goal differential and 91 goals scored in this period throughout the season. The four goals scored in yesterday’s second period served as a powerful reminder of just how strong the Penguins are at this point in the game. Now 34-0-0 after leading through two periods, the Pens are able to disrupt their opponents’ game once they’ve stolen the lead and prevent any comebacks.

That didn’t work quite according to plan this evening. Eric Staal scored his second of the game with Kevin Hayes assisting on both. Staal had essentially an empty net after Bryan Rust misplayed the puck and just slid the puck across the line.

In both cases, the Lovejoy-Pouliot defensive pairing was out on the ice. Lovejoy didn’t play a great game, but Pouliot looked to be the one who should have been covering Staal when he converted.

Moments later, Kessel tied it back up! Hagelin pursued a long pass up the ice and dished it back to Kessel after Lundqvist tried to play it; Kessel tossed it top shelf as Lundqvist struggled to get squared back up.

Kessel almost had another just seconds later, ringing the puck off the crossbar. Though Kessel hasn’t always played up to his full potential for the Penguins, the acquisition of Hagelin in the middle of the season really boosted his play – and that of the team as a whole.

These evenly-matched teams ended the second period tied in hits, (almost) tied in shots, and tied in goals, 2-2. In games where the teams have been tied after forty minutes, the Pens have a record of 3-5-4 while the Rangers boast 13-5-4.

Early in the third, Bonino went to the penalty box for tripping Derick Brassard (how much tripping he actually did as opposed to how much diving Brassard did is up to your own judgment). Bonino is a crucial penalty killer for the Pens, making this penalty all the worse in the third period of a tied, must-win game.

Hagelin headmanned several shorthanded chances during the successful penalty kill, streaking up the ice toward Lundqvist and drawing momentum away from the Rangers.

Pouliot and Crosby also made some great plays as the third period flew on, keeping the game moving and the puck in the zone more often than not.

The Penguins finally got their first powerplay nearly fifty minutes into the game. Brassard high-sticked Conor Sheary – right in his eye, it appeared – and was sent to the box. Undoubtedly the referees turned a blind eye to several bad moves by each team and I really do hate blaming refs for lopsided games, but it’s ridiculous that it took so long for the Rangers to get penalized for something in this game.

Brassard escaped the box without incident.

The rest of the game continued in the status quo. Hagelin was really trying to put one past Lundqvist and that determination showed. Though he only picked up an assist, he was arguably the best all-around player in a Penguins uniform tonight.

Chris Kunitz somehow missed a point-blank shot on Lundqvist, the puck ricocheting off the post. Just as the regular session of play petered out Brassard took another high-sticking penalty and went back to the box, allowing the Penguins to start the overtime period with a man advantage.

The Penguins got a little too fancy again, making more passes than shots on net. Several shots through traffic led to unlucky deflections and missed connections, basically negating their powerplay.

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Though this game was nowhere near the blowout the Pens inflicted yesterday, it’s a pretty good step forward between these two teams. The Penguins look significantly better against the Rangers than they did last year, giving a boost of confidence to both the organization and its fans. If these teams meet in the playoffs, the Pens are much better off than the last time.

(Especially because Hagelin is on our side now!)

Before the game could go into a shootout, Sidney Crosby put the nail in the coffin. Kris Letang shot a rocket from the point and it deflected off either Crosby or Mats Zuccarello, who were battling directly in front of the net, and past Lundqvist. Even though the Rangers managed to come out of it with a point, the Penguins are just that much closer to catching them.

The Penguins have a game in hand on the Rangers and trail them by three points now. It’s definitely possible to leapfrog past them for the home advantage, and even stealing one more point than them in an overtime win tonight was crucial.

Next, the Penguins host Buffalo in a matchup against the lowly Sabres. Rookies Jack Eichel and Hudson Fasching will do everything they can to stop the mighty Penguins, but our Pittsburgh boys will hopefully prove to be too hot for the rebuilding visitors to handle.