By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – The New York Rangers just couldn’t keep up with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Not many teams have been able to since Mike Sullivan took over as coach in December.
This year’s Penguins’ team is decidedly different than the one that blew a 3-1 series lead two seasons ago against the Rangers.
It was a loss that led to sweeping changes throughout the organization, including the firing of former general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma, who led the Penguins to a Stanley Cup in 2009.
This series win against the Rangers two years later proved to be a statement.
New York held an early lead, but Pittsburgh responded by blitzing the Rangers with four second-period goals as Phil Kessel, Bryan Rust and Conor Sheary helped lead the charge, allowing the Penguins to wrap up their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with a 6-3 Game 5 victory Saturday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“We certainly didn’t want to have to go back to New York for Game 6,” Sullivan said. “I think when you have teams at that elimination point, you want to do your best to take care of business right then and there.”
Rust scored his first and second career playoff goals, while Sheary added his second, one game after netting the first of his career. Kessel scored his third of the post-season, while Carl Hagelin and Matt Cullen also found the back of the net as 11 different players appeared on the scoresheet for Pittsburgh.
“Whenever teams are faced with an elimination game, there’s a heightened intensity, a heightened sense of urgency and we had to match that,” Sullivan said.
“We had to go into the game with a certain mindset and a certain killer instinct.”
Henrik Lundqvist gave the Penguins fits in the past, but they owned him in this five-game series.
Lundqvist, who leads all active NHL goaltenders with 115 straight playoff starts, never made it to the third period during three of the five games in the series. The former Vezina Trophy winner allowed 15 goals this series and at least four goals in five of his previous 15 appearances, including the final two.
Meanwhile, Penguins’ rookie Matt Murray made 38 saves to win his third straight game of the series and continue an active 10-game run.
It was the first time Pittsburgh closed out a series at Consol Energy Center since Game 5 of the 2013 Eastern Conference semifinals against Ottawa.
Now, Pittsburgh is back in the semifinals for the third time in four seasons against top-seeded Washington or Philadelphia.
“It doesn’t get any easier, that’s for sure,” said Penguins’ captain Sidney Crosby, who had two assists.
“I think this series was a good step. We were definitely tested. This should give us some confidence.”
New York advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals two years ago and the Eastern Conference Finals last season, both coming after the Rangers rallied from 3-1 series deficits – including the 2014 Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh.
They didn’t have another one in them this season.
Not the way these Penguins are playing.
“I think we’ve established an identity as a group and maybe moreso as an organization on the type of team we want to be and staying true to that,” Sullivan said.
“I’ve said on a number of occasions, I think our competitive advantage is our speed, our quickness and our compete level, but one ingredient we needed to get better was our resilience.
“We’ve developed a resilience amongst our group right now that I think is the strength of our team.”
Pittsburgh ended the regular season with wins in 14 of 16 games and continued the trend in the playoffs, taking four of five games in the series. The teams split at Consol Energy Center, but the Penguins swept the Rangers during two games in New York by a combined 8-1 margin.
Murray and Jeff Zatkoff, the Penguins’ tandem of first-year goaltenders, carried the load with starter Marc-Andre Fleury battling a concussion.
Zatkoff was good enough to earn a split in the first two games of the series, while Murray returned from a concussion of his own, allowing one goal on 48 shots during two games in New York.
He finished the job Saturday against the Rangers.
“It’s a good feeling not to have to go back to (Madison Square Garden),” Murray said. “I think we handled this game like it was do-or-die for us.
“We were able to have a higher urgency level than they did and that was huge for us.”
Particularly when the Rangers scored 1:02 into the game as Rick Nash got a stick on Dan Girardi’s point shot that squeezed through Murray’s pads for the goal.
The teams combined for three goals in less than two minutes later in the period.
Hagelin briefly tied it later in the period, but the Rangers regained the lead 45 seconds later. Viktor Stalberg’s initial shot rang off the post and Pittsburgh’s Patric Hornqvist inadvertently kicked the rebound into his own goal while trying to stop in front of the net.
Kessel evened the score again 1:04 later with a sharp wrist shot from the top of the circle that beat Lundqvist high and to the blocker side. It was Pittsburgh’s fifth straight game with a power-play goal and the Penguins’ eighth of the series.
The Penguins took over from there with a ferocity and intensity the Rangers couldn’t match.
Rust put Pittsburgh ahead a little more than five minutes into the second period. Trevor Daley faked a shot from center point and slid a pass to Rust, who settled the puck before he beat Lundqivst.
Rust forced the turnover in the Rangers’ defensive zone that led to the Penguins’ fourth goal. Cullen picked up the loose puck in the slot and fired it behind Lundqvist to give Pittsburgh a two-goal lead.
The Penguins added two more before the end of the second period, started by Sheary, who whipped a wrist shot high and to the glove side of Lundqvist.
Rust scored his second in the final minute, a one-timer from Evgeni Malkin upstairs on Lundqvist that effectively ended the series.
“It was going to take every one of us to get the result we had hoped for,” Sullivan said. “I thought that’s how it played out.”
NOTES: The Penguins are 10-3 all-time in series when holding a 3-1 advantage. … Murray is the second in team history to win his first three playoff starts. …The last time Pittsburgh scored a power-play goal in five straight playoff games was April 2012 against Philadelphia… Pittsburgh has won 18 of its past 23 home games.