They say that familiarity breeds contempt.
Since the end of April, the Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers have met nine times, seven of those in the Eastern Conference Semifinals this past spring.
I’d say that qualifies as familiarity.
The Rangers rebounded from a three-games-to-one deficit in their playoff series to eliminate the Penguins and end GM Ray Shero’s and head coach Dan Bylsma’s careers with the Pens, respectively.
Trying to gain some sort of retribution against a team who eliminated you from the playoffs, in one game the following regular season, doesn’t really ever feel quite right. It just doesn’t hold that same “win or go home” mentality.
This past Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, the Rangers and Pens squared off for the first time during this regular season, with the home team thumping the Penguins in what can only be described as a 5-0 clinic.
The two Metropolitan Division foes met once again last night at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh. The game had a little bit of everything; including a never-before-seen finish that you had to see to believe.
When a Game That is Over, Isn’t
For the Pens, this game started off on the right foot.
They were energetic, skating hard, winning battles, and generating chances.
Blake Comeau got Pittsburgh on the board first, taking a feed at the left-wing circle from Patric Hornqvist and forcing the puck between Henrik Lundqvist’s arm and body for 1-0 lead.
Just 15 seconds later, the Rangers would tie it thanks to former Penguin Lee Stempniak beating Sidney Crosby 1-on-1 in front of Marc-Andre Fléury. Then after Fléury failed to glove a puck while the Rangers were on the power play, Martin St. Louis was able to rifle home a high shot, giving the blue shirts a 2-1 advantage heading in to the second period.
After Rangers’ defenseman Dan Boyle flat gave the puck to Nick Spaling just inside the Rangers blue line, Spaling found a wide-open Evgeni Malkin at the right-wing circle and Malkin fired it off the near post. Unfortunately for Lundqvist, the puck then ricocheted off his back and into the net to knot the game at two goals apiece.
The third period was played scoreless, but not without some fireworks.
On at least two occasions, Fléury had to mind his net with no stick, and Malkin absolutely crushed Rangers’ defenseman Dan Girardi behind the New York goal. Girardi would be ok and return to the game in overtime.
And overtime between these two saw the lion’s share of those aforementioned fireworks.
Just 17 seconds into the extra five minutes, Crosby found himself on a breakaway thanks to a beautiful feed from Kris Letang. Lundqvist was equal to the test though, and kept the game going.
Then, after coincidental slashing minors to Letang and Carl Hagelin made it a 3-on-3 affair, Rob “The Piece” Scuderi took a tripping call to break up a pseudo-breakaway by Chris Kreider.
The ensuing Rangers’ 4-on-3 power play was relatively quiet, save for the end when Kris Letang was able to return to the ice and nearly ended the game with a breakaway of his own fresh out of the penalty box.
But Lundqvist once again showed why he is arguably the best in the world at what he does with an unreal save with just under five seconds remaining.
After Malkin failed on his attempt at besting Lundqvist, Derek Stepan gave the Rangers the 1-0 advantage.
Crosby then redeemed himself and tied the shootout; followed by Fléury’s save on Mats Zuccarello.
Lundqvist then denied Letang his second opportunity with a nifty poke-check that actually sent Letang crashing hard into the end wall.
Then came Dan Boyle.
I was actually siting right behind the net where the Rangers were shooting, but with everyone standing, my view was obstructed. What I can tell you is that the reaction of the fans in front of me came just before the referee signaled goal. Which led to everyone in attendance, including players and coaches, filing out of the building or into their respective locker rooms.
Until the buzzer at the official scorer’s table went off. The “war room” in Toronto, which reviews every goal scored in the NHL on a given day, was calling.
There was some question as to whether or not Boyle’s shootout winner was, in fact, a winner at all.
24.2 Procedure – The Referee shall ask to have announced over the public address system the name of the player designated by him or selected by the team entitled to take the shot (as appropriate). He shall then place the puck on the center face-off spot and the player taking the shot will, on the instruction of the Referee (by blowing his whistle), play the puck from there and shall attempt to score on the goalkeeper. The puck must be kept in motion towards the opponent’s goal line and once it is shot, the play shall be considered complete. No goal can be scored on a rebound of any kind (an exception being the puck off the goal post or crossbar, then the goalkeeper and then directly into the goal), and any time the puck crosses the goal line or comes to a complete stop, the shot shall be considered complete.
Off Boyle’s stick, the puck hits the goal post, rebounds back to Boyle’s stick once again and then into the net. This is not a legal play. Scroll to 4:06 in the highlight below to see for yourself:
Upon review the goal was disallowed, and the players returned to the ice. Brandon Sutter slickly beat Lundqvist, and Fléury remained perfect at home (16-0) when a save will win a game for the Penguins in the shootout, by stopping Rick Nash (0-4 in shootouts vs. Fléury) with the glove.
A Rivalry Amping Up
This had the feel of a playoff game from the first drop of the puck.
The Rangers’ fan who was seated next to me agreed. After having a playoff series go seven games, ending in the sort of fashion that it did, these two teams are quickly heating up their divisional disdain for one another.
There were big hits along the boards, ensuing scrums and punches thrown. Penalties were taken and the players jawed at one another, back and forth.
I asked the Rangers’ fan who he deemed to be the Rangers’ biggest current rival. He has a personal hatred for the Devils for family reasons (and those two teams have had some epic playoff battles, think 1994), and he mentioned that everyone hates the Flyers.
But the Penguins and Rangers have always had a healthy dislike for each other, dating back to their days in the old Patrick Division. After tonight’s wacky finish, that hatred figures to rise.
You won’t find this in any dictionary, and its not exactly a definition of the word; but in my opinion a rivalry exists when the two teams are both equally successful.
Here in Pittsburgh, think of the Baltimore Ravens and the Steelers. For over a decade, it was those teams who each dominated the AFC North. Pittsburghers will tell you that they still hate Cleveland, but until this season Cleveland has stunk. That doesn’t really make for much of a rivalry.
In baseball (still keeping it local) we have the Pirates and the St. Louis Cardinals. This is what meeting in the playoffs will do. The Pirates were terrible for 20 years. Once they made the playoffs for the first time in that span, they drew the Cards (pun totally intended). Now, the two NL Central foes have a nice blossoming rivalry that Pirates’ fans can really get into.
Ask any Pens fan to name the teams that they love to beat, and ultimately everyone will say Philadelphia, followed I’m sure by Washington. In the past six seasons, Pittsburgh has drawn the Flyers in the playoffs three times, winning two series (’08, ’09) and losing in 2012.
They went the full seven games with Washington in 2009 in what was billed as the biggest playoff series of the current NHL generation. It was Crosby against Ovechkin, with the world watching. To this day that might be the best playoff series I’ve ever watched, from beginning to end.
Last year was the second time in that same six-year span that the Penguins faced the Rangers. Back in 2008, the Pens pretty handily disposed of New York in five games.
We all remember quite vividly what happened last year, and add to that the 5-0 drubbing this past Tuesday night.
Now, after last night’s tilt, I expect games from here on out to be full of contempt.