The New York Rangers didn't just get one game-winning goal in overtime to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1-- they technically got two: Derick Brassard’s shot at 3:06 of the extra session went into the top corner of the net so quickly that the play was allowed to continue just as the Ranger forward was raising his arms. His linemate Benoit Pouliot then put the puck past a helpless Marc-Andre Fleury seven seconds later. Brassard ultimately got credit for the goal, but in either case, the Rangers survived their opening game in Pittsburgh, 3-2.
Though they were outshot 36-27, the Rangers took advantage of poor coverage early in the game by the Penguins' defense and Henrik Lundqvist made 34 saves as the Rangers withstood the constant firepower of Pittsburgh’s offensive arsenal.
Here are some observations from the opener in Pittsburgh:
• Even with Sidney Crosby, who was held scoreless, and Evgeni Malkin, who picked up an assist, the Penguins don’t always have the answers for the diligent defense, ace goaltending and opportunism that the Rangers showed on Friday.
• Both teams exploited the same weaknesses of their opposition to score a pair of goals in regulation. New York abused Pittsburgh’s wandering defense to take a 2-0 lead, then Pittsburgh took advantage of New York’s poor coverage of a trailer joining the play, something the Rangers don't cover well because they emphasize picking up low-slot coverage in transition. For example...
• The Rangers struck first, five minutes into the game, on a 30-footer by Pouliot, a forward who has upped his game since the midpoint of the season. Penguins defensemen Matt Niskanen and Olli Maatta backed away from him as he built up speed coming into their zone, almost inviting him to fire away against Fleury. The Ranger forward obliged to give New York a 1-0 lead. Then, with three minutes left in the period, the same Penguins pairing was tardy again on the backcheck as Rangers forward Carl Hagelin, not an overly physical forward, went into the corner and outmuscled Maatta to the puck. Hagelin sent a centering pass to Brad Richards, who was all alone as Niskanen found himself somewhere between where the puck had been and where it was going. Richards had time to control the wobbly biscuit, move it from backhand to forehand, and stuff it past Fleury.
• The Penguins got on the board at 7:15 of the second period as Beau Bennett fed Lee Stempniak, who was charging through the slot. Stempniak beat Lundqvist with a backhand after New York’s defense pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi left a gap for the pass to the high man. Again, New York left a gap between its low coverage and the high trailer as James Neal tied the score for Pittsburgh. Lundqvist made the initial save on Neal’s slot shot, which popped into the air behind him. Malkin skated by and tried to swat the puck into the net, missing and instead making contact with the goalie’s glove hand. The contact with Lundqvist was not reviewable, but officials looked at the replay to make sure that Malkin didn’t make contact with the puck above the bar. When they saw that he missed it entirely, and it rolled into the net off Lundqvist's back, they confirmed a goal for Neal at 13:28.
• Neither team scored on the power play, and New York has not connected with the man advantage since the second game of its opening series against Philadelphia. At some point, the Rangers' special teams have to produce. If you compare what the Penguins do, using the half-walls to create plays, or what the Canadiens did against Boston in their first game by forcing the Bruins to move their forwards into different lanes, it's easy to see why the Rangers are getting too predictable.
• Fleury was much better in the second half of the game. During one frenetic sequence in the third period, he made back-to-back saves at the goalmouth against Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. When Fleury is confident and on his game, the Penguins are a different team. They can still outgun most clubs, but given his inconsistencies, their fortunes often come down to his performance.
• Going forward, the Penguins will need to press New York’s defensemen more urgently. Including the games on consecutive nights against the Flyers in the previous round, the Rangers are in the midst of playing six playoff games in nine nights and the Penguins must make sure they turn New York's fatigue into a factor.