The New York Rangers weren’t just trying to win an elimination game on Friday night. They were out to support a teammate in his time of loss, something much greater than a hockey game.
A day after Martin St. Louis's 63-year-old mother, France, passed away, his Rangers delivered their most passionate and determined game of the playoffs, outplaying and outworking the Penguins 5-1 in Pittsburgh to extend their second-round series. Derick Brassard scored twice and added an assist, and Henrik Lundqvist made 31 saves during a night when his foe on the other end of the ice, Marc-Andre Fleury, was giving the Penguins new reasons to worry. Pittsburgh still leads the series 3-2, but the Penguins' grip on it seems much more tenuous than it did only a few hours earlier.
St. Louis returned to his childhood home in Montreal after his mom's death on Thursday, but was in Pittsburgh in time to play in Game 5. Before the contest, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said that St. Louis came back because the veteran forward told him that his mother would have wanted him to play. She would have been proud of the results.
Here are some thoughts and observations from Game 5:
• St. Louis didn't start the game, but the Rangers may have been looking for an emotional lift from the struggling Rick Nash and Derek Stepan. Against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, who took the first shift for the Penguins, Rangers defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi both pinched in deep to keep pucks in the zone and the Rangers hemmed the Pens top line in for the first 50 seconds, recording two shots, but no goals.
• Stop the presses...the Rangers scored – cue Sam Rosen – “a power-play goal!” After 36 whiffs with the man advantage, New York finally connected to take a 1-0 lead. Chris Kreider was credited with the tally and definitely earned it. With the puck in the Pens' zone, he dove to keep it away from Pittsburgh’s Brian Gibbons and prevent the Penguins from clearing. McDonagh then drove a point shot past a block. Fleury made that save, but Kreider snared the rebound to Fleury’s right. From the left corner, he potted the bad-angle shot into a tight corner.
• McDonagh was also very strong in his own end, blocking shots, using his body more than in past games and moving the puck well. If he is favoring his left shoulder, as many suspect, it didn’t impact his play in Pittsburgh.
• For their second goal, the Rangers overworked the Pens' defense, thanks in large part to Mats Zuccarello. The forward popped into the slot and drew a pair of defensemen to him. Paul Martin and Kris Letang were caught next to each other as Zuccarello put a shot on Fleury, leaving Brassard alone in front of the net. Brassard pounced on the rebound, had time to shift to his backhand and put New York up 2-0 in the first period.
• When Fleury isn’t right, he has trouble with rebounds and pucks at his feet. His inability to handle them late in Game 4 and most of Game 5 are not a good sign, even after his solid performance earlier in the series. Up 3-1 in the second period, the Rangers scored their second goal in 50 seconds, again on the power play, as McDonagh drove a shot over Fleury’s catching glove from 45 feet away, without a deflection or screen. For those who are waiting for Fleury’s bubble to burst, there were certainly ominous signs and this was one of them. The Penguins have talked up the confidence they say they have in their goaltender, as if those words would aid him by osmosis, but during the past few seasons, the game has gotten into his head. Worse than the defeat itself, the corrections that Fleury made earlier in the series seem to be forgotten.
• The Penguins cut the margin to 2-1 on a dazzling individual effort by Malkin three minutes into the second period. But Brassard answered five minutes later, cashing in on a second rebound in front of a confused Penguins defense. Brassard’s line with Zuccarello and Benoit Pouliot has now combined for 11 goals in nine games.
• The Rangers weren’t done with the Penguins even after the score was soundly in their favor. They were get ready for Game 6, taking several opportunities to give Penguin players an extra shove or a glove in the face. That passion and snarl was absent earlier in their series. New York’s Derek Dorsett and Pittsburgh’s Chris Kunitz talked a good talk before being separated, and Zuccarello challenged Crosby to a bout in what would not even have made the lightweight card. Crosby later had a good joust with Lundqvist in front of the Rangers' goal. And New York’s John Moore and Pittsburgh’s Jussi Jokinen, two players who rarely fight -- for good reason -- had a wrestling match that sent them tumbling to the ice and eventually the penalty box for cross-checking and slashing... \so it wasn’t much of a fight.
• Call it the Patrick Roy approach. Down 4-1 with nearly six minutes to play and a Ranger in the penalty box, the Penguins pulled Fleury to gain a six-on-four advantage. When the penalty was winding down, Pittsburgh called timeout in order to get some extra time for their gunners to stay on the ice. Give coach Dan Bylsma credit for going for it, even against absurd odds. And give Lundqvist and the Rangers credit for keeping the puck out of their net. Kevin Klein’s empty-netter with 2:29 to play ended the scoring.
• There was an emotional scene at the Rangers bench in the closing minutes when Brassard put his right arm around St. Louis and gave him a hug. The Ranger veteran had one shot and three hits, but no points, in 16:19 of play. The series heads back to New York for Game 6 on Sunday, where St. Louis will have the support of his teammates and his fans as he takes the ice on Mother's Day.