Thanks to two goals from Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, the New York Rangers defeated Pittsburgh 5-3 in game six of their first-round playoff series. However, the Penguins started off well, continuing their dominance of New York by scoring two quick goals on the Rangers’ Vezina hopeful in net, Igor Shesterkin but the Rangers stuck to the ‘bend but never break’ mentality that let them come from behind to win in game five.
Five minutes into the second period, Penguins fourth-line winger Evan Rodrigues was checked into the boards by Ryan Lindgren, who he then retaliated against. He was called for a roughing penalty and five seconds afterwards, the Rangers made him pay. Ryan Strome teed up Zibanejad up in the very high slot for a cracking slap-shot that beat Pens goalie, Louis Domingue and cut the Penguins lead in half. Then, Zibanejad scored again on a one-time slap shot which knotted the game at 1-1.
The excitement from Pennsylvania was far from over because Pittsburgh took a double-minor penalty when defenseman, Mike Matheson high-sticked forward Frank Vatrano in front of the Penguins net and it caused the Massachusetts man to bleed, giving the Rangers a four-minute man-advantage. They did not disappoint and scored just under a minute afterward when Shesterkin found Zibanejad at the Penguins’ blue line with a long pass, who skated in on a two-on-one and took a shot. His shot produced a huge rebound that Kreider wheeled around and stuffed into the net to give the Rangers the lead.
The Penguins were far from crushed, especially when their leader while Captain Sidney Crosby could not play, Evgeni Malkin broke up a pass and went in on a breakaway. Despite the fact he was shooting on Shesterkin, who was nominated for the League MVP trophy, the three-time Stanley Cup champion scored to tie the game at three. Both teams let their foot off the gas in the third period but shockingly, Kreider scored when his shot was fumbled by Domingue and trickled behind him. The Rangers added an empty-net goal by Andrew Copp (fourth goal of the series) and amazingly tied the series and forced a game seven on Sunday night at their home arena.
Why the Rangers have Improved in this Series
During postgame interviews, Ranger players emphasized the fact that they do not ‘quit’ after falling behind early in pressure-filled, elimination games but the reason they have succeeded is they have maintained confidence in their ability to come back. The Rangers were underconfident after games three and four of this series which they lost by scores of 7-4 and 7-2 but, they found their mojo when they stormed back with three straight goals in each of the last two games.
One of the reasons New York was able to mount these comebacks was not just their ability as players but it was also trust. Before game six, people doubted Zibanejad the center and the first line for it had not scored a goal since game three, but Gallant did not shuffle his lines. After struggling in games three, four and five, the Ranger power play produced two goals in game six.
The Blueshirts power play is converting at a 33% rate in the series and that is a huge asset for them heading into game seven. It will put immense pressure on the Penguins not to take penalties but one thing that would really help the Ranger offence at even strength would be if Artemi Panarin would start making plays again. The Rangers’ top point-getter during the season has produced just one assist in his last two games after having five points in the first four, so Rangers fans are hoping ‘the Breadman’ is due for a big delivery in game seven.
Staying the Course is Key for New York
This playoff series has generated chatter across sports media– “Crosby Ruled out for Game Six” was one headline and the Houston Chronicle called the Rangers the “Comeback Rangers.” The fans and media are giving the same team they left for dead after game four a whole lot of attention now that their series is tied, but that noise comes from outside the Rangers dressing room. Inside their Madison Square Garden home where the charismatic, Ryan Reaves will pump his teammates up by reading the starting lineups (to put it mildly) the team’s identity will not waver. The alternate captains inside the locker room like Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad have been with the franchise for seven years and know what winning hockey looks like.
There’s not a playoff way to play, ther’es Rangers hockey. So We just have to continue to work smart, play as a team and we’ve been treating every game since we’ve been down [in this series] like a game seven, so nothing changes.Chris Kreider
It’s no secret that Igor Shesterkin has been the backbone of this Rangers team during the regular season. However, it would be easy to say that he has wilted in his first playoff series as the number-one goaltender, but he has not. Shesty kept the Rangers in game one, making 79 saves (second-most in NHL playoff history) but they still lost in overtime. It is true that in Shesterkin’s first two games in a road environment, Shesterkin did have bad games and was pulled two times. However, he has not given up and was there to save the day in the two elimination games and Gallant summed up his goaltender as having been “outstanding” in the series.
What might be most key is the camaraderie in that dressing room, where the players like Kreider and Zibanejad are tight with each other which was evident in Friday’s postgame conference. In the middle of an answer about the team’s battling back from a 2-0 hole, Mika said “a lot of the credit goes to this guy” while referring to his teammate, Kreider who was sitting next to him, while adding “been playing with him for six years and we’ve been helping each other through all types of times.” Their closeness was the basis for how well they played together in a pressure-filled game six.
Kreider showed his appreciation for his linemate by describing the little things Zibanejad has continued to do during the playoffs although the goals were not coming.
The playoffs reveal who you are and what kind of character you have and for him to stay with his game and continue to work, I mean he’s been a huge leader for us all year. He’s been our engine and you knew it was going to turn for him and he’s certainly not done.Chris Kreider on Mika Zibanejad during the postgame after Game Six
Both Rangers were here when their team last won a playoff series in 2017. It seems like ages ago when the Rangers were led by captain Ryan McDonagh and anchored by Henrik Lundqvist in the net but back then of the current Rangers leaders, Kreids and Zibanejad were on that team and learned about the price of winning a playoff series. Fast forward six years and Zibanejad stepped up when his team needed one and so in game seven, it might be time for their second line to jumpstart the offence which needs to strike early and hard against a Penguins team looking to avoid being the butt-end of a historic collapse. Coverage of game seven begins at 6:30 on MSG Networks and the puck drops around 7:05 PM.
main image credits: