NEW YORK – The Rangers advanced to the Eastern Conference semifinals with a 2–1 victory over the Penguins on a goal from Carl Hagelin at 10:52 of overtime in Game 5 of their first round Eastern Conference playoff series. New York took the series despite scoring only 10 goals in the five games and won each by a count of 2-1, a testament to the Blueshirts’ defense and goaltending, two hallmarks of a true championship contender.
Here are three thoughts on tonight’s clincher:
1. Henrik Lundqvist is in prime form and so is the Rangers’ defense.
During the regular season, The King survived a Final Destination-style puck to the neck and ensuing vascular injury that forced him to sit out 25 games, but it was unclear if he needed to be a part of the Rangers’ playoff plans. Backup Cam Talbot ably guided them during the Vezina Trophy winner’s absence and finished the season at 21-9-4 with 77 goals allowed in 36 games, sufficiently proving himself as a starting goalie on a Stanley Cup contender. The Blackhawks won Cups with Antti Niemi and Corey Crawford, the Flyers reached the 2010 Cup finals while platooning Michael Leighton and Ray Emery. Talbot is no worse than any of the aforementioned four and could have feasibly guided New York back to the title round.
But Lundqvist is back, and if he continues to play at this level the Rangers may be the most difficult team to beat during the rest of the tournament. Entering Friday’s contest, he’d allowed only 1.89 goals per game during the course of his last 11 outings and compiled a .931 save percentage. In Game 5 he turned in a magnificent 37-save performance, the fourth time he’d held the Penguins to only one goal in the series.
Coupled with the continued outstanding play of top defensive pairing Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, it’s difficult to envision how teams will penetrate the Rangers for open scoring looks. The lifeless Penguins offense spent most of the opening two periods settling for low-risk, long-range chances that Lundqvist gloved with ease. The goal the Penguins did manage in regulation bounced off Nick Spaling and trickled past the baffled New York netminder. But it certainly wasn’t an example of great offensive skill or deficient goaltending. Despite an energetic third period where the Pens outshot the Rangers 14-7 and spent most of the 20 minutes in the offensive zone, Lundqvist foiled most of their promising opportunities with ease.
When the Penguins did find chances—Evgeni Malkin had a clean look in the opening period and Patric Hornqvist found a chance right on the doorstep in the second—Lundqvist stretched his pads to turn away both. The Hornqvist save, a particularly acrobatic maneuver, blunted what little energy Pittsburgh had in the second frame. The scuffling Penguins offense found some needed momentum in the third period, but Lundqvist turned away a variety of good looks, a point-blank look from Spaling, and a slight deflection of a Crosby slap shot, to preserve the 1–1 tie.
Given the recent struggles of the Penguins’ offense (Evgeni Malkin finished the season without a goal in his final 12 games and was pointless in his final six), Lundqvist’s recent success should be treated with some reservation. But whatever tribute is not paid to the King should be attributed to the Rangers’ defense. Lauded as “unreal” by assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson after Lundqvist’s Game 4 performance, McDonagh compiled another fine performance along with Girardi to limit Sidney Crosby, who had one legitimate scoring chance on a third-period power play but was otherwise ineffective.
Even during an underwhelming season by the Penguins, limiting them to eight goals in five games is quite a feat. The Rangers defense looks like one of the league’s most formidable units.
2. The Rangers will need a bit more from Martin St. Louis … and their offense in general.
While Rick Nash has elevated his play and looked like a top forward on a Stanley Cup contender, Martin St. Louis drifted into irrelevance in a series that was starved for offense. The usually prolific winger was hardly recognizable in the first four games. He was better, but similarly ineffective in Game 5, skying a wide-open chance that could have put the Rangers ahead in the third period and missing a promising wrap-around that could have ended the game in overtime. Despite leading the team with six shots, most of St. Louis’s efforts didn’t challenge Marc-Andre Fleury.
Along with Nash’s offensive skill, the Rangers will need St. Louis, and more, if they wish to defend their Eastern Conference title. Like most other games in the series, New York excelled in its puck possession, but didn’t put many great chances on net. The line of St. Louis, Hagelin and Kevin Hayes was strong during Game 4 and produced the game-winning goal, but it struggled to create big opportunities in Game 5—though it’s hard to criticize a line that scored the series-winner. Also of note: Chris Kreider impressed with his typically physical brand of hockey, but didn’t open the lanes that he often does.
Despite an otherwise strong series, it’s easy to blame Nash for any offensive struggles the Rangers endured. He whiffed on a great chance to win the game in overtime. But it’s time for somebody else on this unpredictable offense to be the scapegoat.
3. Fleury deserved a better fate.
The personification of a streaky goaltender, Fleury had another strong effort wasted on Friday night. The same player who was yanked in favor of a fossilized Tomas Vokoun during the 2013 playoffs and was arguably responsible for blowing a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers in last year’s Eastern Conference semifinals, Flower did as much as the Penguins could have asked in this series.
If only Pittsburgh's potent offenses of the past could have supported him this season.
The obviously talented but maddeningly inconsistent keeper was at his finest on Friday night, redirecting a series of deflected pucks and stopping two crucial chances, the most notable from Derick Brassard in the second period, that would have extended the Rangers’ lead. In the third, he turned away Dan Boyle’s go-ahead chance at the doorstep with one of several impressive pad saves. A goalie who has struggled with his positioning and soft goals in the past, Fleury thwarted several strong scoring chances by demonstrating excellent awareness and strong stick work. Carl Hagelin’s game-winner snuck past Fleury’s shoulder, but was more of a credit to Hagelin than a failure by Fleury.
His has been an occasionally brilliant, but often frustrating career. Yet over these five games, the blame lies everywhere else but with him.