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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Game Recap: Pens Withstand Early Pressure; Beat Rangers 5-3

With Evgeni Malkin out of the lineup, it would be easy for the Penguins to fold down the stretch. With the Rangers dominating the early action, it would have been easy to write off a crucial two points and look to the next game. But with Marc-Andre Fleury at times single-handedly keeping the Penguins in the game early, the Pens were able to turn aside the early New York chances and beat the Rangers 5-3. Conor Sheary had 2 goals, Sidney Crosby had a goal and an assist, and the Penguins continued gained ground in the Metro while also building their lead over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Marc-Andre Fleury was tested early as the Rangers kept the puck in Pittsburgh's zone and had several chances that forced the Pens' netminder to make a big save. The Penguins withstood the barrage, and they almost broke open the scoring themselves on a tic-tac-toe passing sequence off the rush that saw Sidney Crosby feed Conor Sheary driving the net, but Sheary wasn't able to tip the pass in behind Henrik Lundqvist. But the Rangers would continue to dominate the play, and an Olli Maatta high sticking penalty on Rick Nash would give New York the first power play opportunity of the game. Chris Kreider had a great opportunity on the breakaway but it was a Fleury's quick stick that was able to pokecheck the puck away and neutralize the chance. But the good news was short lived as Ian Cole cleared the puck out of play from his own zone, giving the Rangers 32 seconds of a 5-on-3. But while the team in front of him continued to be over-matched in the early going, Fleury was a huge factor in keeping the score tied at zero, and he made several key saves on the penalty kill to prevent the Rangers from taking advantage of the Pittsburgh penalties.

Despite the domination the Rangers had displayed throughout the period, it was a JT Miller holding penalty on Trevor Daley that gave the Penguins a chance to turn the tide. Kris Letang fed Sidney Crosby for a one timer from the right circle, and the rebound trickled off Lundqvist and behind the goal line. Patric Hornqvist gathered the puck and was able to deflect the puck off Lundqvist and into the Rangers net to make it 1-0 Pittsburgh. And the goal didn't just help buffer the Pens against the Rangers' onslaught, it helped tilt the ice back into their favor and even out the action.

It was only a matter of time that the Rangers would be able to get the puck past Fleury, and after an errant Chris Kunitz cross ice pass on the rush New York got a 3-2 break that allowed them to tie the game with just under 2 minutes left in the period. A Kevin Klein pass isolated the Rangers 2-1 against Hornqvist, and Derek Stepan was able to find Kreider on the far post for an easy tap in that Fleury didn't have a chance to stop. The Penguins would get several good chances in the closing seconds of the period, including on the power play after Ryan McDonagh hooked Bryan Rust, but the horn saved the Rangers and sent the teams to the first intermission.

Sidney Crosby rang a shot off the post on the power play at the beginning of the second period, but the Penguins weren't able to retake the lead on the man advantage. They had another great opportunity 5 minutes in when Hornqvist was able to give Maatta an area pass to get him in alone with Lundqvist, but Lundqvist was able to get his blocker on the shot to deflect the puck away. Pittsburgh would eventually get the pull-ahead goal midway through the 2nd period when Conor Sheary deflected a Justin Schultz shot over the glove hand of Lundqvist for his 4th goal of the season.

The lead wouldn't last long when Patric Hornqvist tripped Eric Staal to send the Rangers back on the power play, and seconds into the opportunity a Derick Brassard shot deflected off Olli Maatta and bounced under Fleury's blocker arm and into the goal. The quick score would test Pittsburgh's resiliency, and Hornqvist nearly scored his second of the game when he got the puck on the crease in alone, but he wasn't able to whack the puck past Lundqvist into the net. But it would be Conor Sheary again to put the Pittsburgh Penguins back out in front. Off a set play from behind the net, the puck came to Tom Kuhnhackl at center ice, and he tapped the puck over to Sheary in stride, and Sheary's speed allowed him to get behind the Rangers defense, where a snap shot over Lundqvist's blocker gave the Pens the 3-2 lead. Perhaps frustration was starting to get to the Rangers players at this point, because with 2:36 left in the period Mats Zuccarello blatantly slashed Ian Cole's stick out of his hands and through the neutral zone. While the Penguins weren't able to score, they managed to take the lead into the locker room having erased the possession advantage the Rangers had during the 1st period and knowing that if they could score the next goal they might be able to break the game open.

And things started with a bang in the 3rd period when Kunitz and Kreider dropped their gloves off the opening faceoff. There was a scary moment for the Rangers early in the period as Carl Hagelin unleashed a shot that caught Lundqvist squarely in the facemask, leaving the Rangers goaltender momentarily dazed. The refs would stop the play for the trainers to check him out, but Lundqvist would remain in the game. The Penguins got a scare of their own moments later when Kris Letang blocked a shot off his foot, but he'd also return to the game. The teams would play 4-on-4 hockey after Brassard and Eric Fehr went off with coincidental slashing minors, and play continued to get chippy in the 3rd period.

Though the Penguins were pressing to get the next goal, it would be the Rangers who would get on the board next to tie the game. Ryan McDonagh had the puck in deep and took a wrap around shot on net. Fleury was too deep in his net, and the puck managed to get caught up in his pads before squirting through the tie the game 3-3. Moments later Rick Nash would be sprung on a breakaway, and in what likely should have been called a penalty shot, if a penalty at all, Cole got his stick on Nash's arm as he skated in behind the defense. It ended up being a 2 minute minor, but the Penguins penalty kill was able to buckle down and get the kill.

The Penguins are going to need their fair share of luck down the stretch in a tight playoff race and without Evgeni Malkin, and they certainly had good fortune to retake the lead again midway through the 3rd period. Matt Cullen had the puck in the left corner, and his feet got tangled with Brassard and he began to stumble to the ice. While going down, he attempted to center the puck in front, but the puck hit off Marc Staal's skates and between the legs of Lundqvist to make it 4-3 Pittsburgh. The goal made it a frantic, back-and-forth final few minutes in the 3rd period. With Lundqvist pulled for the extra attacker, Rust would win a race against Dan Boyle to negate an icing, which would set up Crosby to throw the puck on net. His shot deflected off Zuccarello's stick and slowly trickled past Boyle and into the open net.

The Rangers dominated possession through the 1st period, but the Penguins were able to turn the tide starting in the 2nd and actually finished the game ahead with a score-adjusted 50.7 CF%. It was a huge victory for Pittsburgh, not only for the 2 points they desperately needed but also because of the way they were able to hold back the Rangers early before settling down and winning the game. The win moves Pittsburgh past Detroit into the 1st Wild Card in the Eastern Conference. They are now 5 points behind the Rangers with a game in hand and one to play against New York, 2 points behind the Islanders in 2 additional games played and the same number to play against the Isles, and they're now 4 points ahead of the Flyers, though Philadelphia has a game in hand and a chance to gain ground with a game in hand and 3 more games to play against the Pens. Pittsburgh will return home to face the Islanders Tuesday night with another huge 2 points on the line.

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