New York Rangers: Pittsburgh Penguins

PITTSBURGH -- The emotions following the New York Rangers’ historic 2-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins could not be contained.

One by one, players left the ice, barreling into the dressing room in haste to celebrate, screaming in elation and hollering with the sort of exuberance one might expect following one of the most dramatic turnarounds in franchise history.

Even team owner James Dolan couldn’t suppress his giddy grin as he was ushered down the victor’s hallway following the series-ending win. He had plenty to smile about.

[+] EnlargeNew York Rangers
Jamie Sabau/Getty ImagesThe Ranger rallied around St. Louis and took this series from the Penguins.
For the first time since the club’s inception, the Rangers rallied back from a 3-1 deficit to upset an opponent in Game 7. And for the second time in three years, the team is headed to the Eastern Conference finals.

“It’s a pretty fun thing we’ve got going on right now,” said Brian Boyle, who scored the first goal of the game following a beautiful passing sequence from his fourth-line teammates. “We don’t want it to end.”

More stunning than the Rangers’ ability to avoid elimination in three straight games against superstars Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Pens was the club’s utter transformation in wake of a tragedy that occurred between Games 4 and 5.

That, of course, was the turning point of the series, perhaps the most meaningful 24 hours in the team’s whole season, when the Rangers banded together to support veteran forward Martin St. Louis, who found out upon arrival in Pittsburgh on Thursday that his mother had died from a heart attack.

His courageous and heartfelt return to the ice in Game 5, less than 24 hours after her death, inspired the Rangers, but that was just one game. The Rangers were able to carry over that raw emotion, that passion and purpose, into Game 6 is well, a win that became even more meaningful because St. Louis scored the all-important first goal and because the game fell on Mother’s Day.

When it came down to Game 7, the Rangers did not need to manufacture any inspiration or energy. They had that in abundance and, unlike the pressure-burdened Penguins, they played with verve and joy and had a hell of a time in punching their ticket to the conference finals, in which they will meet the winner of Game 7 between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins.

“The whole last seven days. I don’t know if I’ve ever been with a group of guys that have been through what we’ve been through,” veteran center Brad Richards said. “Nobody gave us a chance. Marty’s situation falls upon us. It wasn’t a good feeling after Game 4. To have this feeling, after all that, it shows how fun this group is to be around. Everyone’s willing to do their part. It’s unbelievable.”

The daunting two-game series deficit was never treated as a non-starter for the Blueshirts. Led by veterans such as Richards and St. Louis, who won a Stanley Cup championship together in 2004 in Tampa, the situation was instead treated as a challenge.

The belief was there inside that room and the leadership was calm and steady in showing everyone else the way. Richards, as he has done all season but especially since the departure of former captain Ryan Callahan, stepped up in every situation, saying what needed to be said, even when it wasn't pleasant to say or easy to hear, and leading by example on the ice as well.

“I gotta say. We lost our captain. We brought in Marty [St. Louis], but other guys stepped to the front and assumed more in bigger roles, and bigger leadership,” Vigneault said. “In this series, we had said we needed a lot of bus drivers and we had a lot of guys driving the bus.”

The 34-year-old Richards, who has assumed the rule of de facto captain, scored the game-winner in the second-period, a critical man-up marker that quickly sieved the mounting pressure the Pens had built following Jussi Jokinen’s tying goal less than four minutes prior.

It was just another clutch performance in a long list of special moments for the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner, and it kept his pristine record in Game 7s untarnished. The veteran center has won all seven in which he has played.

Suffice it to say that franchise goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was simply exceptional in continuing his dominance in elimination games as well, outplaying every other player on the ice.

In a series that came down to three veritable game-changers: Lundqvist vs. Crosby and Malkin, the former Vezina Trophy winner edged the Penguins' talented tandem by a country mile. Following up a 36-save effort in Game 6, Lundqvist finished Tuesday with 35. And of course he was at his absolute best with the Penguins bearing down in the final minutes of the game, even when he was flailing in the crease, trying to preserve a one-goal lead without his stick.

Crosby was held to just one goal all series. Malkin was more effective (three goals, four assists) but couldn’t deliver the type of goal the Penguins needed most in a winner-takes-all Game 7 at home.

The Rangers entered the series as underdogs, but they emerged as winners because they were the better team. They exploited their balance and structure and heart to beat a team that has two of the best forwards in the world.

Now, they move on to the next round -- a remarkable feat.

Few people expected them to be here. Who knows what they are capable of now?

“We’re in the final four now,” Richards said. “I don’t know of any teams in the history of the NHL that get this far that don’t think they can win it.”

Rapid Reaction: Rangers 2, Penguins 1

May, 13, 2014
May 13
9:47
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The New York Rangers made history Tuesday night, rallying back from a 3-1 series hole to knock off the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 with a 2-1 win that earned them a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

It was the first time in franchise history the club had surmounted such a deficit, and in doing so, the Blueshirts punched their ticket for their second conference finals appearance in the past three seasons.

In a battle of the stars it was the Rangers who had the edge when all was said and done, with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist besting both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. Despite constant pressure from a desperate Pens squad, Lundqvist was a wall in making 35 stops to secure yet another win for his Blueshirts while avoiding elimination. He didn't even surrender a goal in the final six minutes of the game when, despite being without his stick during a frenzied shift, he left the Penguins gobsmacked with frustration.

Crosby finished the series, and the 2014 playoffs, with just one goal.

Big-goal Brad: Hard to imagine that at this point last spring, veteran center Brad Richards was watching games from the press box as a healthy scratch. The former Conn Smythe winner added to his already-lengthy list of clutch goals with a key power-play marker in the second that stalled a threatening Penguins push and allowed the Rangers to reclaim a one-goal lead. Richards was set up for the goal by a brilliant, no-look feed from good friend and teammate Martin St. Louis, who was the hero of Game 6. Richards’ goal snuffed out a ton of momentum that the Penguins had wrangled following Jussi Jokinen’s game-tying rebound goal less than four minutes prior. Richards, one of the team’s most vocal and experienced leaders, entered Tuesday’s action with an untarnished 6-0 record in Game 7’s during his career.

First-goal foreshadow: Before the game, Rangers coach Alain Vigneault was asked about the significance of a strong start and the game’s first goal. Considering the team that scored first won each of the first six games of the series, Vigneault answered: “It seems to be an important trend in this series.” Well, the Rangers fourth-line got them on the board to deflate a Penguins crowd that was raucous to start. A beautiful little passing sequence resulted in Brian Boyle’s goal at 5:25 of the first. Granted, the Penguins gave up an odd-man rush, but that was the sort of shot that Marc-Andre Fleury really should have been able to stop. The Penguins picked up their pace, controlling play for much of the remainder of the first frame but Lundqvist yielded nothing, turning away all 10 shots faced in the period.

Changes coming? Considering the team's embarrassing collapse from a two-game series lead, it seems fairly certain that change may be coming for a Penguins team that has underachieved yet again. Both coach Dan Bylsma and general manager Ray Shero are likely to endure quite a bit of scrutiny in the coming days as the future direction of the team, and its leadership, is assessed.

W2W4: Rangers vs. Penguins, Game 6

May, 11, 2014
May 11
12:04
PM ET
At a glance: After an emotional Game 5 win in which veteran forward Martin St. Louis played just one day following the unexpected death of his mother, the New York Rangers again try to avoid elimination in their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Trailing 3-2 in the best-of-seven set, the Blueshirts hope to get a lift from the home crowd at Madison Square Garden and force a Game 7 on Tuesday in Pittsburgh. Meanwhile, the Penguins look to close out the series and punch their ticket to the Eastern Conference finals.

Special meaning: Game 6 falls on Mother’s Day, giving an already pivotal match even more meaning, especially for St. Louis. The 38-year-old spent Friday with his family in Montreal and brought back his father, Normand, and sister, Isabelle, with him to New York to attend Sunday night’s game. St. Louis said this will be a “special” day for him and his family. “To have my dad and my sister here, I think it helps with the grieving process,” St. Louis said after the team’s morning skate.

Better look: After an abysmal stretch in which the unit was blanked on 36 straight opportunities, the Rangers’ power play rattled off a pair of goals in Friday’s game. Both Chris Kreider and Ryan McDonagh scored with a man advantage, alleviating some pressure on the ailing unit. Said Derick Brassard, who tallied twice in the Rangers’ Game 5 victory: “The fact that we scored two goals [on the power play], it’s obviously huge and hopefully it brings us some confidence for tonight.” Having Chris Kreider back in the lineup doesn’t hurt, either. The 23-year-old winger’s net-front presence and ability to retrieve pucks have been assets with the man advantage.

Questions on Penguins' D: The Penguins are likely to be without veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik, who missed the first three games of the series and subsequently sustained a different injury in his return to the lineup in Game 4. Complicating matter for the Penguins is that rookie blue-liner Olli Maatta did not participate in the Penguins morning skate, either. The Penguins may be forced to play without both in Game 6.

Is home ice really an advantage?: It sure hasn’t seemed so this series, when the Rangers dropped both Games 3 and 4 at home and the Penguins have now lost two of three in Pittsburgh. Historically, the Penguins have fared well at MSG. Under current coach Dan Bylsma, the team has gone 12-4 at the Garden, including both regular-season and playoff games. Another interesting stat? Under Bylsma, the team has clinched seven of their eight series victories on the road.

Rangers rally around Martin St. Louis

May, 10, 2014
May 10
12:06
AM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The New York Rangers may not win this series against the Pittsburgh Penguins, but it won’t be for a lack of heart. At no other point in the season was the team’s loyalty, commitment and compassion on better display than Friday’s emotional 5-1 win in which they rallied behind teammate Martin St. Louis, who played Game 5 only one day after the death of his mother.

After the team charter landed in Pittsburgh on Thursday afternoon, the 38-year-old veteran found out his mother, France St. Louis, had unexpectedly died at 63 of a heart attack. The Rangers provided St. Louis with the team plane to fetch his family in New York, then procured a private plane to take them all to Montreal, where he joined his father and was able to see his mother one last time before she was taken away. He was told by the team to put family first, take whatever time he needed. But when he spoke with his father Friday morning, the decision was clear.

[+] EnlargeMartin St. Louis, Rob Scuderi, Robert Bortuzzo
Gregory Shamus/NHLI/Getty ImagesThe Rangers avoided elimination in Game 5 in Pittsburgh.
“I know, deep down, my mother would -- my mom would want me to play this game. She’d be proud of me coming here and help as much as I can. And the boys have been so supportive, the support I got from the New York Rangers, my teammates, and my friends and family, friends around the league, old friends, has been unbelievable,” said St. Louis in a touching, heartfelt postgame interview after the Rangers avoided elimination.

“She was a great lady, the best human being I’ve ever known in my life. I owed it to her to do it.”

Most of St. Louis’ teammates were unaware of his intentions on game day. Words started to spread at the pregame meal at the team hotel. Some were in utter disbelief that he was coming back. Some, especially those who have known St. Louis for some time, were not surprised at all. But all of his teammates recognized the sacrifice he was making. Here was a teammate in excruciating emotional pain, and he was putting that on hold to play a hockey game because it mattered.

"I think it shows how much he cares about the guys in this room," said defenseman Marc Staal. "He didn’t want to leave us when we needed him most. Shows a lot about a guy. I don’t know if I could do it."

Hockey has always been a sanctuary for St. Louis and it was again Friday night, when the team put forth an inspired, purposeful performance that kept their season afloat. Derick Brassard scored two goals, as did the maligned power play, and the Rangers forced a Game 6 at Madison Square Garden.

“It’s always been like that for me. Once you get on the ice, I’m not going to say I forgot my whole situation -- she was with me the whole way -- but this is probably the most comfortable place that you can be as a hockey player,” St. Louis said.

Those around him did their best to keep his spirits high. There was a brief talk, in which he was thanked for his return, before team meetings just hours before puck drop. During the third period, Brassard gave him a jubilant hug on the bench, tussling his helmet in appreciation. Even Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby made a special stop near the Rangers’ dressing room to pay his condolences to the well-respected veteran before the game began.

After the game, alternate captain Richards talked about the “culture” of hockey players, saying he wasn’t surprised St. Louis played. No one on the team could have grasped the depth of St. Louis’ loss better than Richards, either. The longtime friends, who played together in Tampa, have known each other for years. Their families have grown close. Just 10 days earlier, Richards said, St. Louis’ mom was patting his fiancee’s belly, overjoyed for the impending arrival of his first child.

"It puts a lot of things in perspective about the other night’s hockey game," Richards said.

According to Brassard, the tragedy hit home for pretty much everyone, seeing their teammate go through such a shock.

“If we could’ve all gone to support him, we would have done it,” Brassard told ESPNNewYork.com.

He thought of his own mother, and how despondent he would have been to receive such news.

“When things like that happen, it makes you realize,” Brassard began, getting emotional. “I wanted to call my mom and tell her I love her.”

The Rangers did the best they could, for St. Louis and for one another. They were able to harness that emotion and channel it. That sort of raw energy allowed them to power past the Pens, a totally different look from the team that was on the ice in Games 3 and 4 looking both ragged and defeated.

Now they will have another chance to prolong their season on Sunday. Fittingly, Game 6 falls on Mother’s Day.

“We get another chance to continue, on Mother’s Day,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “It will be real special for our group.”
PITTSBURGH -- Rallying behind Martin St. Louis, who played Friday night after the death of his mother just one day prior, the New York Rangers avoided elimination with a decisive 5-1 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5.

Derick Brassard tallied two goals, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist was razor-sharp, the power-play scored (twice!) and the Rangers played with the type of urgency and desperation that allowed them to force a Game 6 on Sunday back home at Madison Square Garden with the series now at 3-2.

Penguins star Evgeni Malkin did his best to put the team on his shoulders and single-handedly force Pittsburgh back into the game -- he charged right through two Rangers defenders for a highlight-reel goal in the second period -- but the Rangers were able to squash the Penguins' surges at key points throughout the match.
And you can bet the Marc-Andre Fleury questions will resurface after he gave up four goals Friday despite the 29-year-old netminder posting back-to-back shutouts earlier in the series.

Big game for Brassard: Save for an unwise slashing penalty on Malkin at the end of the second period, Brassard delivered a fine performance Friday night with a pair of goals. Backhanding the puck past Fleury in the first frame, Brassard allowed the Rangers to reclaim a two-goal lead in the second period. Production from Brassard’s line, which includes Benoit Pouliot and Mats Zuccarello has been huge for the Blueshirts, particularly given the struggles of the team’s star players Rick Nash, Brad Richards and St. Louis.

Slump snapped: The Rangers entered Friday’s action without a goal in their past 36 attempts, when a slump that spanned nine games was halted by Chris Kreider, who buried a rebound for a 1-0 Rangers lead at 9:36 in the first period. Kreider, who returned to the Rangers lineup in Game 4 after missing 19 games with a fractured left hand, showed why his net-front presence was so sorely missed during his absence. Before his goal, he made a nice diving play on the man advantage, a sputtering unit that has at least seemed a lot less stagnant with Kreider in the mix. The Rangers went on to score another man-up marker in the second period, with defenseman Ryan McDonagh’s first goal of the playoffs, a slap shot from the right point. McDonagh has been uncharacteristically disappointing this series but was able to chip in offensively with a big goal Friday night.

W2W4: Rangers at Penguins, Game 2

May, 4, 2014
May 4
12:58
PM ET
PITTSBURGH -- The New York Rangers took Game 1 of their second-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins and look to build a 2-0 advantage before heading back home to New York for Games 3 and 4. Again, the Blueshirts will be confronted with that woeful stat -- 12 straight playoff losses while holding a series lead -- and they aim to end it Sunday night at Consol Energy Center. The Penguins battled some monumental momentum swings in their first-round series against the Columbus Blue Jackets, ultimately prevailing in six games. Will they show that same resilience in this series and tie things up before jumping on a flight to the Big Apple?

Stopping Sid: Sidney Crosby is slumping at the worst possible time for the Pens, entering Sunday’s action without a goal in 12 straight postseason contests. Crosby was held off the score sheet entirely in the series opener and was on the ice for all three goals against. His skid has sparked speculation that he might be playing through an injury, a debate that will certainly rage on unless he starts producing. Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said he was confident in the center’s ability to bounce back: “I expect him to be at his best tonight,” he said Sunday morning. “I really do.”

Change afoot: The Rangers appear to be making a change to their struggling power-play unit, which is mired in an 0-for-25 slump. Based on the team’s morning skate Sunday, defenseman Anton Stralman may get a chance to play the point on the man-advantage. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault has been reluctant to use Stralman on the power-play all season and wouldn’t confirm the change, but Stralman said he was eager to embrace the opportunity if he gets the chance: “It’s about getting shots through, hitting the net and creating some chances,” he said. “Hopefully, I can help this power play right now."

Still sidelined: Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik did not skate Sunday, making it likely that he will miss his fourth straight game for Pittsburgh. Injured Rangers forward Chris Kreider, who has yet to make his 2014 playoffs debut after suffering a left hand injury late in the regular season, skated with the team and appears to be making progress. Vigneault said Kreider was “looking better,” but the coach does not know whether he’ll be available during this series.

Scoring woes: Crosby isn’t the only star player enduring criticism for his lack of production. Rick Nash has yet to find the back of the net this playoff season, either. The winger has scored in only one of 20 postseason games for the Rangers. His linemate Derek Stepan said on Saturday that he felt the trio was on the verge of breaking through, but Nash stressed the importance of capitalizing on chances: “This time of year, close doesn’t really matter. We’ve got to be finishing our opportunities.”

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