|This series's underdog, Santa's Little Pittsburgh Penguins|
(photo from Fox's "The Simpsons")
The two teams entered the post-season on opposite ends of the spectrum, what with the Rangers capturing the NHL's President Trophy (awarded to the team that finishes with the most overall points) and the Penguins needing a last-day-of-the-season victory over the last place Buffalo Sabres to claim the eighth (and final) playoff spot.
Pittsburgh, of course, squandered a 3-1 series lead to New York last spring when all of the Pens' offense flew south for the summer. The Rangers would eventually push the LA Kings to six games in the Finals before losing in dramatic fashion.
For the Pens, they found themselves wearing the "Santa's Little Helper" tag (see: underdog) for the first time in years, and Marc-Andre Fleury entered the playoffs having enjoyed his best regular season as a professional and primed for a second consecutive strong post-season...
First Period Action:
...and so, of course, the Rangers exploded early. Rick Nash blasted a low slapshot on the rush, and Marc-Andre Fleury unfortunately kicked the rebound straight out into the slot. With the Pens' defense caught staring into the proverbial headlights, an unguarded Derick Brassard rocketed the Rick Nash shot/pass rebound into an open net to give New York a VERY early 1-0 lead (just 28 seconds in).
Say it with me, and say it loudly: "D'oh!"
|The "deerfenseman" caught out of position|
in this case was Paul Martin
(image from Fox's "The Simpsons")
During a subsequent shift, the Pens' third line had extreme issues exiting their own zone, with Beau Bennett flubbing a clearing attempt and, later, Martin St. Louis was left unmarked in front of Fleury, but the Rangers were unable to filter a pass to him.
Pittsburgh was clearly trying to trap up New York in the neutral zone, but the Rangers' outlet passes were carving up the Pens and allowing the blue shirts entry with speed.
Chris Kunitz, likely eager to erase the memory of a second half of the season that saw him net only 2 goals, took an unnecessary penalty that put New York on the power-play with a chance to double their lead.
The Pens were able to kill off the penalty, but nearly gave the Rangers a 2-0 lead anyway when Malkin and Sutter combined for a horrific turnover right in front of Fleury, but "the Flower" was able to stand up and keep the shot out of the twine.
Taylor Chorney then planted Tanner Glass into the boards- which is ordinarily a good thing, only Glass didn't have the puck, and so the Wilkes-Barre call-up was sentenced to two minutes in the penalty box for a deserved interference call.
Almost immediately, Fleury robbed Ryan McDonough on a rebound chance after the Rangers' defenceman moved through the crease.
The Rangers continued to run a simple umbrella power-play, and Rick Nash (he of 42 goals during the regular season) nearly converted, but couldn't get his stick on a shot/pass from the point.
Pittsburgh, behind the strong play of Ben Lovejoy, killed off the second New York power-play and once again staved off digging a bigger hole for themselves.
Steve Downie nearly tied things up off of a nice feed by Brandon Sutter, but Henrik Lundqvist closed off the bottom of the ice as he moved right-to-left to stop the Penguins' agitator from in tight.
|Consequently, this is exactly how I felt after|
Comeau took the Penguins' third penalty.
(image from Fox's "The Simpsons")
Three times turned out to the be New York charm as a shot from the point was unintentionally redirected by Nick Spaling past his own netminder to give the Rangers the 2-0 lead.
While Sidney Crosby inspired a strong shift after the second goal, David Perron destroyed any potential momentum by taking the Pens' fourth consecutive penalty and once again putting New York on the power-play.
While Pittsburgh would earn their third kill of the period (keeping the Rangers at 1-for-4), spending nearly half of the period on the penalty kill clearly denied the Pens of any real chance of generating offense or momentum. So far as disasters go, this period was just about as bad as the Pens' opening stanza against the Ottawa Senators in 2007.
Second Period Action:
The Penguins (finally) started to show signs of life and began to clear their own end with some semblance of confidence.
That confidence would culminate when Blake Comeau found a loose puck to the left of a sprawled out Henrik Lundqvist and slipped the puck past the Swedish netminder to pull the Pens to within a goal at 2-1.
|Pictured: the two most popular Swedes in the world|
(image from ESPN)
Dominic Moore had a glorious scoring chance when Brian Dumoulin inexplicably threw the puck in front of his own net, leading to the aforementioned Moore shoveling an awkward shot at Fleury, who turned it aside into the corner.
The Pens would finally catch a break when Rick Nash boarded the always dangerous Rob Scuderi (...????) to put Pittsburgh on the power-play.
The offensively challenged PP would struggle to establish possession, but the Pens had back-to-back opportunities, one from each circle, but both time the Rangers collapsed to block the shot before it reached Lundqvist.
The Rangers had an opportunity for an odd-man break shorthanded, but the puck wandered off of the stick of Derek Stepan, denying New York the scoring chance.
Late in the second, the Pens found themselves hemmed into their own end, and the Rangers went to work running a high-low cycle. After forcing an icing, Johnston opted to not use his time out to give his skaters some oxygen.
The calculated risk worked out, as Sidney Crosby and company would eventually have enough gas to clear the puck and change lines.
The period would end with Pittsburgh down 2-1, but finally playing with some urgency and consistency.
Third Period Action:
The Penguins, of course, never won a game in the regular season when trailing after two periods. This little factoid loomed large as Pittsburgh entered the third trailing the Rangers 2-1.
JT Miller weaseled his way through the Penguins defense and nearly scored a minute into the third, but the puck was knocked away at the last second and Miller knocked the net off its moorings.
Shortly later, Rob Scuderi was bloodied by a careless follow-through, dropping Pittsburgh down to their usual 5 defensemen.
The Rangers once again had a chance to rebuild a two goal lead, but New York failed to corral the loose puck around Fleury.
Fleury was then forced to stop Carl Hagland's slapper from the middle of the slot following a great centering feed from the diminutive Martin St. Louis.
After the Pens were unable to clear their own end, Steve "Nelson" Downie did his best Steve Downie impression and after delivering a crushing check to Mats Zuccarello, Downie leaned down and cross-checked the back of Zuccarello's neck, eventually earning two minutes for his efforts.
The Pens would kill the penalty easily, and then Downie nearly made up for his transgressions by almost stuffing a loose puck behind Lundqvist.
David Perron collected a loose puck after Blake Comeau went wide on Lundqvist, and Perron managed to get off a quality wrist shot from in close.
Time continued to dwindle, and despite Pittsburgh tilting the ice toward the Rangers, New York continued to cling to a 2-1 lead.
The Pens were assessed a bad icing with 1:48 left, delaying Fleury leaving the net for the extra attacker until about 1:25.
The Penguins couldn't get much going, and actually took another icing, forcing Fleury to return to his own net. A disgusted Johnston opted to burn his timeout then, giving his horses time to breathe.
Unfortunately, his stallions couldn't do much, and the Rangers would hold on to win by the final of 2-1 and take a 1-0 series lead.
For the Penguins, they played well after the first period, but the initial surge by New York proved to be the margin of victory.