There was some dazzle and a dose of looking-good hockey from Artemi Panarin and his teammates Thursday night, but if you think that the Rangers got up off the floor in their 5-2 Game 2 victory over the Penguins at the Garden on skill and finesse, that would be incorrect.
That’s because the Blueshirts evened this first round at one-all by prevailing in just the street-fight kind of game that becomes prevalent in the playoffs. No one dropped the gloves, that’s not what this was about. Not at all.
But it was very much about the Rangers competing in tight corners and in the contested areas of the ice. It was about puck support and retrieval. It was about taking the body and taking a hit to make a play while working along the walls and in the hockey trenches.
It was responding to the numerous times the Penguins got a piece of Igor Shesterkin, sensational once again with 38 saves — nine of them in the first 6:51 of the third period while protecting a 3-2 lead.
Hey, with Brian Burke and Ron Hextall in the Pittsburgh front office, and with Evan Rodrigues tripping Shesterkin in the crease at the 1:00 of the first period, it is not a leap to believe that is part of the organization’s game plan. The netminder was bumped early and then late (plus a few times in between) with Jeff Carter getting a piece of the goaltender with 2:04 remaining in the game while No. 31 was trying to get back to the net after playing the puck behind the goal line.
“I wasn’t too happy in a game like that, there was no reason for it,” head coach Gerard Gallant said. “I was disappointed with them going after him a little bit like that.
“Carter is a good honest player, but it didn’t look good to me.”
The victory was also about not allowing Sidney Crosby and linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust to shift into the express lane in order to avoid traffic, even as that unit scored both Pittsburgh goals and was relentlessly dangerous. Still, they had to work for their chances, and they did, racing and then just slicing through the Blueshirts from one end to the other.
The Rangers were going to need more from their high-end forwards in this first quasi must-win game of Gallant’s tenure. And they got more. Frank Vatrano, who had a quiet Game 1, was involved throughout. His drive from the top was deflected home by Chris Kreider for a 3-1 lead at 12:06 of the second before Vatrano zipped one past Louis Domingue on a dash down the right-wing boards for the 5-2 goal at 9:49 of the third.
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Mika Zibanejad worked 200 feet in drawing the Crosby matchup about 50 percent of the time in what became an analytics saw-off. Ryan Strome scored on a power-play deflection while Andrew Copp got his second goal in two games, this one off a nifty look-away, looking-good feed from Artemi Panarin.
Ah, Panarin, who had an adventure out there. He did more with the puck than he did in Tuesday’s opener. He created. He made that nifty play to set up Copp. He scored the critical 4-2 goal at 8:02 of the third (after the Penguins had amassed nine of the period’s first 10 shots) by banking one off defenseman Mike Matheson after shaking Kris Letang around the circle.
“I was actually looking for [Jacob] Trouba,” Panarin said, telling no lie. “I was trying to get the puck to him.”
It’s just as well then that Matheson was the middle man.
But Panarin also committed an egregious turnover in the first period that triggered the sequence on which Guentzel tied the score 1-1 at 8:52, when Crosby picked off his errant feed in the neutral zone. And No. 10 was also delinquent on the back check, failing to pick up and stick with Crosby on the rush on which No. 87 scored on a rebound to make it 3-2 with 1:26 to go in the second period.
“Honestly, I can’t say whether he was real good or real bad without watching the game back,” Gallant said. “He made some big plays and he was a big part of the power play, which was good. When you’re coaching a game like that with that intensity, I didn’t focus on individual players.”
Fair enough. The Rangers got more from their big guns. They got more from their team. They needed it. They will need more when the series shifts to Pittsburgh for the next two games. But the way the Blueshirts responded in this one and got to Domingue late, there is reason to believe.