Welcome back to the postseason, New York Rangers. The intensity, the pace, referees letting both teams play on. And on and on.
It’s been half a decade since the Rangers were in the playoffs, and their first game back in the hunt for the Stanley Cup was an instant reminder of why postseason hockey is so compelling and, for the losing team, heartbreaking.
The Rangers were that team on Tuesday when they lost a triple overtime slugfest to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 4-3, in a game that set numerous playoff records. After three periods of scoreless hockey in the third period and the first two overtimes, Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins deflected a shot from the point from teammate John Marino past Igor Shesterkin, the Rangers goaltender, 5 minutes and 58 seconds in the third overtime to end the longest opening game of a playoff series since 1939.
“It’s a playoff game against one of our rivals,” said Penguins right wing Bryan Rust, who had a goal and two assists. “We knew it was going to be a good, fast, hard-hitting game and that’s what we got.”
The game – the longest ever played in the current Madison Square Garden, which opened in 1968 – featured just about everything: power play goals, short handed goals, goals reversed on review, shots hitting the goal posts, a goaltender limping off the ice with an apparent injury, and near miss after near miss after near miss.
The Rangers and Penguins combined for 151 shots on goal. Shesterkin, who led all goaltenders in goals against average during the regular season, stopped 79 shots, second most in a playoff game.
Shesterkin fell short of the all time record for saves in a game, which was set in 2020 by Joonas Korpisalo of the Columbus Blue Jackets, who made 85 saves in a 3-2 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning. That game was also the first game of a first-round series. Shesterkin was the eighth goalie in NHL history and first Ranger to make more than 70 saves in a game.
In retrospect, there were many near misses that could have sent the fans home a lot earlier than 11:48 pm, when Malkin scored the game-winner. The biggest opportunity came with just over three minutes left in regulation time, when the Rangers appeared to score a go-ahead goal.
Rangers wing Kaapo Kakko raced towards the goal as Pittsburgh defenseman Brian Dumoulin trailed behind. Dumoulin appeared to push or lean on Kakko’s back as he crashed into the Penguin’s goaltender Casey DeSmith. Kakko slid past the net, tipped the puck to his teammate, Filip Chytil, who shot it into an unguarded net.
But the Penguins challenged the goal, and after a video review, the referee determined that Kakko was not pushed and thus had interfered with Smith and the goal came off the board.
“It was a three overtime game, so you could look back on a lot of plays,” Rangers center Ryan Strome said later. “It was a 4-3 game, but they got the one goal that mattered.”
The Rangers were younger and less experienced than the Penguins. Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad are the only players left from the team’s last trip to the postseason in 2017. Shesterkin had a fabulous season but had played in just one postseason game.
The Penguins, by contrast, have been postseason fixtures for 16 consecutive years. The triumvirate of Sidney Crosby, Kris Letang and Malkin have played nearly 500 playoff games, all with Pittsburgh, and have won three Stanley Cups together.
The Rangers – the sixth youngest team in the league – came out like the hungrier team in the first period, throwing their weight around and getting to pucks faster than the Penguins, who have the fourth oldest roster.
Rangers defenseman Adam Fox started the scoring near the midpoint of the period when he took a pass from Zibanejad and fired a wrist shot from near the blue line that sailed over DeSmith’s right shoulder.
The Rangers’ exuberance got the better of them at times. With less than two minutes in the first period, defenseman Ryan Lindgren was sent off for two minutes after he shoved his shoulder into the jaw of Pittsburgh winger Rickard Rakell. Rakell’s head snapped and he fell to the ice and had to be helped off. Lindgren was initially given a five-minute penalty that was reduced to a two-minute minor.
In the second period, the Rangers picked up where they left off. Just over three minutes into the period, Strome skated behind the net and fed a pass to Andrew Copp, who buried a shot from close range while sliding toward the net on one knee.
But just as the Rangers appeared to get comfortable, the Penguins found their footing. Less than 90 second later Crosby passed the puck in front of the net, where Jake Guentzel, the team’s leading goal scorer, tipped it into the net.
Seven minutes later, Crosby after he sliced through the top of the zone unguarded again found Guentzel again. Shesterkin barely had a chance to react.
The Rangers regained the lead after Patrik Nemeth was sent off for his second penalty of the game. During the Pittsburgh power play, Zibanejad took the puck in a face off, fought his way up ice and found Kreider racing down the left side. Kreider faked to DeSmith and buried scored on a backhand for a short-handed goal.
Before Nemeth could return from the penalty box, though, Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba was sent off as well. Down two men, the Rangers almost burned off Nemeth’s penalty. But Malkin passed to Letang who tipped the puck to Rust to tie the score at three goals each.
The Penguins outshot the Rangers 25-8 in the second period.
Neither team scored in the third period or in the first two overtimes, and there were no penalties either. As the game wore on, the players were slower getting to their benches, their passes were not as crisp and they collided with each other more often.
Midway through the second overtime, DeSmith limped off the ice and went to the locker room during a timeout. He was replaced by Louis Domingue, who had played just two games this season. He stopped all 17 shots he faced.
After the game, Domingue said that he had eaten a meal of spicy pork and broccoli between the first and second intermission. “Not the best,” he said. “I didn’t expect to be going in.”
Their jerseys and skates soaked with sweat, the players appeared to be weighed down. Guentzel said he and his teammates ate bananas and energy bars between periods.
“I feel great,” he told the Sportsnet before heading to the locker room after the game.
He and the Penguins no doubt felt that, and relief, after Malkin found the net with the game-winner.