By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH — The Pittsburgh Penguins spent the first half of the opening period short-handed.
It was supposed to be an advantage for the New York Rangers, but the Penguins’ penalty-killers set the tone and the power play finished the job, sending Pittsburgh to the Big Apple with new life.
Jussi Jokinen’s third period, power-play goal sealed the Penguins’ 3-0 victory against the New York Rangers Sunday at Consol Energy Center as goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury stopped all 22 shots he faced, helping Pittsburgh even its best-of-seven Eastern Conference second-round series.
“I thought almost to a man, our game was at another level,” Penguins’ coach Dan Bylsma said.
The Penguins, 3-0 after a playoff loss this year, will have a chance to sustain the momentum and take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-seven series today (7:30 p.m.) during Game 2 at Madison Square Garden.
“A quick turnaround to Game 3, we want to make it as hard as possible for them,” Bylsma said. “We’ve got to keep this at them and keep the schedule a factor.”
Fleury earned his 50th career playoff win and registered his seventh career playoff shutout, taking sole possession of first place on the team’s all-time list.
Fleury didn’t have his busiest night as Pittsburgh outshot the Rangers, 25-15, in the final two periods, but he had stellar defense in front of him. He was sharp when it mattered, particularly while entrenched in a goaltender’s duel as counterpart Henrik Lundqvist, who made 32 saves, did everything he could to try and keep the Rangers in the game.
“When we had the lead nobody tried to play too much defense,” Fleury said. “We kept going at them and didn’t give them too many opportunities. I just tried to stop the next one…tried to keep us in the game.”
Jokinen’s power-play goal with 3:30 remaining, his fourth of the playoffs, effectively ended it. Jokinen, on a career-best six-game point streak, banged home a rebound from James Neal’s bad-angle shot, elevating the puck over a sliding Lundqvist’s outstretched glove and left pad.
“The puck came right to my wheelhouse and I got the perfect shot,” Jokinen said. “It was good to finish with that shot. When you get the puck right there, you want to one time it.”
Kris Letang’s second goal of the playoffs, scored in the second period, served as the official game-winner. It was the 15th of his career, equaling Larry Murphy’s franchise record for defensemen. Evgeni Malkin scored his fourth of the playoffs and leads the team in post-season scoring with 10 points.
Captain Sidney Crosby failed to score for a career-high 13th consecutive game, but the NHL’s MVP candidate and regular-season leading scorer came dangerously close.
His explosive burst returned, leading to several quality scoring opportunities, including a pair of backhand chances on the same first-period shift. Crosby, who had six shots on goal, also threw Ryan McDonagh’s stick out of his hands while protecting the puck on the rush and nearly scored on a one-touch chance from the top of the crease.
“To see Sid playing like that was really inspiring for everybody in our dressing room,” Letang said. “He was really dangerous, making plays in front of the net and shooting the puck like he can.”
The Penguins looked sluggish in the opener, spotting the Rangers two goals before dominating the second period, erasing the early two-goal deficit and forcing overtime only to come up short.
Pittsburgh didn’t quite get the start it wanted in Game 2, either, taking three penalties during the first 7:04 of the game, but the Rangers’ miserable power play couldn’t capitalize. The Rangers, 0-for-4 on Sunday, have failed to score in their last 29 attempts.
“It does you no good to be frustrated,” Rangers’ forward Brad Richards said. “We’re 1-1 in the second round of the playoffs.
“They were desperate. They knew they had to win this game. We matched it, but we didn’t match it long enough.”
Lundqvist kept it scoreless, stopping Chris Kunitz on a breakaway, but Pittsburgh kept coming at the Rangers’ goaltender, eventually cashing in five minutes later.
Letang’s centering pass for Kunitz deflected off Dan Girardi’s stick and past Lundqvist, breaking the scoreless deadlock with what proved to be the game-winner.
“They came hard the whole night,” Lundqvist said. “It’s something we expected. We just have to regroup and go back home.”
It’s not going to get any easier as Game 2 was the first of another back-to-back set for the Rangers.
It’s the second time in less than a week the Rangers will play back-to-back games, also doing so in Games 6 and 7 during the opening round against Philadelphia.
The Rangers, in the midst of a grueling five-game, seven-day stretch, dropped Game 6 in Philadelphia before recovering for a series-clinching win the next night. Pittsburgh is playing back-to-back in the playoffs for the first time since Games 1 and 2 of the 2009 Stanley Cup finals in Detroit, which the Red Wings swept by identical 3-1 margins.
The Penguins realize there is an advantage in the schedule, but the last thing they want to do is let up after a key Game 2 victory.
“It’s the same for both teams,” Fleury said. “We’re just going to enjoy tonight. We got a win, but we’ll come back at it (Monday). It’s another big game.”
NOTES: Six of the Penguins’ last nine series have been tied at 1…Fleury joins Tom Barrasso as the only goaltenders in team history to record 50 or more playoff wins…Malkin passed Kevin Stevens for fourth place on the team’s all-time playoff points list with 107…Pittsburgh is 24-11 all-time at home in Game 2…The Penguins are 17-5 in 22 playoff games against New York, including a 10-3 mark at home…The Rangers lost eight straight Game 2s dating to the 2011 playoffs…New York has never beaten Pittsburgh in the playoffs, the 1-0 lead the first time the Rangers ever led the Penguins at any point.