Saturday April 23rd, 2016

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The Pittsburgh Penguins bounced back from two first-period deficits, then scored four unanswered goals in the second on the way to a 6–3 rout of the New York Rangers on Saturday afternoon.

Bryan Rust scored twice, with Carl Hagelin, Phil Kessel, Matt Cullen and Conor Sheary contributing singles for the Penguins. Rick Nash, Dominic Moore and Chris Kreider responded for New York.

With the victory, the Penguins eliminated the Rangers in five games, avenging playoff losses to New York each of the past two seasons. They’ll await the winner of the Washington–Philadelphia series.

Here are three thoughts on the clincher:

Baby Pens grow up fast

Four players in Saturday’s lineup—forwards Rust, Sheary, Tom Kuhnhackl and goaltender Matt Murray—spent most of the season playing under coach Mike Sullivan in AHL Wilkes-Barre/Scranton. When he was promoted to Pittsburgh to replace Mike Johnston, Sullivan knew that each of them could make a contribution to the big club, and gave them every chance to prove it.

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Murray was top notch on Saturday, stopping 38 of 41 shots to earn his third win of the series and 10th in a row, improving his overall season record to 12-2-1. He was particularly sharp in the third period, with the Rangers throwing everything at the net in an effort to close the gap. He kept himself square to the shooters, controlled his rebounds, and played with a confidence that carried over to his teammates.

The boys up front were even better, combining for three goals and five points and dominating play with their relentless puck pursuit. With that speed they’ll be a tough match for whichever team they face in the next round.

Phil the Thrill

What a game by Kessel. First he set up Hagelin’s opening tally on a pretty give-and-go. Then he tied the game at two with a stunning snapper that caromed off Henrik Lundqvist’s stick handle on its way to the top corner.

If that’d been the extent of his contribution, it would have been a solid afternoon. But this was Kessel at his most committed, using his speed not just to create offense but to break up at least two scoring chances by the Rangers. He might never be mistaken for Patrice Bergeron, but the effort here highlights his buy-in of Sullivan’s game plan.

Kessel ended up scoring three goals and five points in the series, giving him 16 goals and 27 points in 27 career playoff games. The Pens can use that production, but he'll make an even greater impact by bringing that two-way game.

Blame where it’s due

Let the finger pointing begin in New York.

Lundqvist is going to face his share after allowing 10 goals on 41 shots in Games 4 and 5 (a less-than-robust .756 save percentage). He deserves it. From the start of this one he was fighting the puck, his body language making it clear he was just waiting for it all to fall apart. And when it did, on Hagelin’s game-tying goal in the first, he immediately aimed the stink eye at his defense. Not the leadership they needed from their best player at a pivotal moment in the contest.

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As the Penguins started to pour it on in the second, Lundqvist looked smaller and smaller between the pipes. Of the six goals he allowed, four came on unscreened shots—the kind that NHL goalies are expected to stop, especially in an elimination game.

Clearly his head wasn’t in the right place. Have to wonder if there were health issues as well. Remember, Lundqvist left Game 1 with an injury when the blade of Marc Staal’s stick slipped inside the bars of his mask and cut him near the eye. The Rangers played it down at the time, with coach Alain Vigneault saying it was nothing serious, but when you see him whiffing time and again with his glove, it’s fair to ask if there were lingering issues with his vision.

But it’s not all on him. This game, and the entire series, was an indictment of a defense that routinely hung the netminder out to dry. Blown assignments, lost battles, lazy turnovers, mental errors and Keystone Kops calamities. All the same issues that dogged the Rangers during the regular season were magnified by the speed, the persistence and the desire of a Penguins team that was better in every facet of the game.

Maybe the window of Cup contention hasn’t quite closed the Rangers, but it certainly has for that defense corps. Expect big changes over the summer.

Finally, it's a safe bet that Eric Staal has played his last game in Ranger blue. The deadline acquisition never quite found his place on the roster, and was a virtual non-factor in this series. He finished up with a 0-0-0 line and a grim –7 rating.

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