The Rangers entered Game Six against the Penguins Sunday night having staved off playoff elimination 48 hours earlier on the road, and they replicated the feat again--this time at home on Madison Square Garden ice--with a gritty 3-1 victory to force a decisive Game Seven in Pittsburgh on Tuesday night.
"We wanted to give ourselves a chance, we won two games, and now we have a Game Seven," stated Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault after his team won its second straight to avoid having their season come to an end, outscoring Pittsburgh by a combined 8-2 in the process. "Now we go to Pittsburgh and we've got a chance."
Just three days after his mother passed away, Martin St. Louis scored the game's first goal Sunday, fittingly on Mother's Day, and the Rangers never trailed, winning at home for the first time in this series. Henrik Lundqvist, who is now 9-2 with a sub.200 goals against average in his last 11 starts when the Rangers face playoff elimination, made sure the Rangers would play a Game Seven in this series with an outstanding 36 save performance.
St. Louis was greeted on his first shift 1:45 into the game with supportive chants of "Marty! Marty!" from the sold-out crowd at The Garden, and then he delivered on his second shift, scoring the first goal of the contest, giving the Rangers an early 1-0 lead at the 3:34 mark of the first period. The Garden rocked like at no other time this post-season and the fans serenaded St. Louis again with even louder full-throated chants of his first name, as he punched the glass and then was swarmed by his teammates.
"Everybody is playing their hearts out, and that's what you want to see this time of the year," said St. Louis, whose father and sister attended Game Six at The Garden. "I think the boys were happy for me, but we just kept rolling, playing hard and emotional. I thought we played really well. Mother's Day, my dad's here, my sister's here. It's been a tough time for my whole family. To be able to get the lead in the first period, it was a good one"
Derek Stepan chipped the puck to the right of Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury off a scramble in front of the Penguins net, and the disc bounced off St. Louis' thigh and rolled over the goal line for his first goal of the series. St. Louis would finish the first period with a team-high three shots on goal, which included a tricky shot off a shorthanded rush that forced Fleury into making a difficult glove save. He also sprung Chris Kreider in alone on a power play 10:33 into the game, but Fleury made his best of the night to deny Kreider with his pads.
"It's probably one of the cooler things I've been a part of in my professional career," Stepan said of the grieving St. Louis' goal. "The emotion on that goal is something that I will never forget. With what he's been through in the past couple of games, for him to score that goal, and in the way he did, it is something I won't forget for sure."
After the game St. Louis explained that he kept the puck from his goal, and later presented it to his father. He earlier said that having his close family in New York at the game helped all of their individual and colective mourning processes.
The Rangers were able to double their advantage at 6:25 of the first period when Carl Hagelin flipped a backhand shot past Fleury for his fourth goal of the playoffs. The goal was unassisted after Hagelin had used his speed to chase down a lose puck in the offensive zone.
With the Rangers holding a 2-0 lead and an 11-2 shots advantage more than halfway through the first period, Kreider was called for a roughing penalty at 11:20 and even though the Blueshirts killed off the minor, Pittsburgh gained traction after forcing Lundqvist into a pair of difficult saves. The Penguins turned up the heat on New York and caught a break with 3:04 to play in the first when Brandon Sutter's shot caromed off both John Moore and Kevin Klein and past Lundqvist, cutting the Rangers lead in half.
Lundqvist remained stout despite the bad break and despite the fact that the Penguins closed out the period by outshooting the Rangers 13-2 in the final eight minutes.
"They are so skilled that if you give them something they are going to take it," Lundqvist said of the Penguins. "You just have to respect that, but at the same time you have to really believe in what we're doing, and the past two games our mindset has been really good."
It did not take a genius to realize that 1) the Rangers needed to regroup for the second period and 2) that the next goal in this game would be absolutely crucial. The Rangers though they had got it at 5:55 when Kreider barreled hard to the net and slipped a puck past Fleury with the Rangers on the power play--and less than a minute after Lundqvist had forced Marcel Goc to shoot wide on a shorthanded breakaway. However Kreider, after receiving a push in the back from Pens defenseman Kris Letang lowered his shoulder and collided with Fleury, with the referee immediately waving off the goal and sending Kreider to the penalty box for goaltender interference.
Four minutes later with the Rangers again skating on the power play, Pittsburgh's Brian Gibbons took off past Dan Girardi for another shorthanded breakaway, and Lundqvist made a huge save, squeezing his pads together with the puck in between while spinning out of his goal crease.
"At critical moments we made some great plays," offered Lundqvist. "It's a fun and exciting feeling obviously when you play at home in a must win, and as a team you go out and play that well together. It's a great feeling."
That next goal finally came at 15:30 of the second period, and it was the Rangers taking a 3-1 lead as a result. Derick Brassard, the hero of Game Five with two goals and an assist, came through in the clutch again with an amazing individual effort, kicking the puck to his stick just outside of Fleury's crease before punching it over the Pens goalie with his glove and then reaching around Fleury to tap the loose puck into the back of the cage for his fourth goal of this series--more than any other player on either team.
"The puck was bouncing and I kind of pushed it with my glove and I whacked it behind him," explained Brassard. "I don't think if I touched it with my stick it would have ended up in the corner. It was a big goal in the game. It gave us a cushion."
A hotly-contested game throughout turned decidedly nasty as the second period wore on. Sidney Crosby kicked the skates out from behind Girardi and later slashed Lundqvist following a save. Neither play was deemed a penalty by the referees, nor was a stick between the legs by Crosby on Dominic Moore. As the buzzer sounded to end the period, Moore and Chris Kunitz grappled in front of Lundqvist, while Crosby and Brian Boyle were separated by the officials.
There was more nastiness late in the third period when Pittsburgh's James Neal was assessed a ten-minute misconduct penalty with ten seconds remaining, and then Klein needed to be separated from Letang after the final buzzer.
"Everyone's competing out there and the intensity is high, it's playoff hockey," Moore said. "The intensity sometimes carries over after the whistle. That's what hockey is this time of the year."
In an emotionally-charged game both teams were penalized often, and each sparkled on the penalty kill. Pittsburgh killed off all six Ranger power plays, while New York was a perfect 4-for-4 on the kill against the Penguins. The Rangers have now killed 18 of 19 Pittsburgh power plays in this series.
Now this best-of-seven series is down to one single game. Win one and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals. Lose one and the season comes to a painful end.
The puck drops at 7:00 Tuesday night at the CONSOL Energy Center.