By Dan Scifo
From the Point Contributor
PITTSBURGH – In a Stanley Cup playoff series featuring two of the top goaltenders in the league, it was the backups who stole the show in Game 1.
Pittsburgh goaltender Jeff Zatkoff had plenty of help settling into his playoff debut as Patric Hornqvist netted his first career playoff hat trick, while Sidney Crosby also had a goal and two assists, allowing the Penguins pull away late against Antti Raanta and the New York Rangers for a 5-2 victory during Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series Wednesday at Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
“Obviously, going from not playing to being a Game 1 starter, it’s funny how things kind of come around,” Zatkoff said. “It just goes to show that you have to stay with it and continue working hard because you never know when you’re going to get that opportunity.”
Zatkoff said injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury sent a courtesy text the night before the game, informing him of the start. Penguins’ coach Mike Sullivan didn’t provide an update on Fleury, not that it matters to Zatkoff at this point.
“It was nice to have a night to prepare,” Zatkoff said. “We’re happy to get this one, and we’ll enjoy it, but we have to get back to work.”
Pittsburgh holds a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series. Game 2 is 3 p.m. Saturday in Pittsburgh.
Zatkoff made his first NHL playoff start in place of the injured Fleury, while Raanta also made his post-season debut to start the second period when starter Henrik Lundqvist left the game because of injury.
Lundqvist, making his 111th consecutive postseason start, writhed in pain with 48.2 seconds left in the first after taking an inadvertent stick to the eyehole of his mask from teammate Marc Staal late in the first.
He returned to his crease after a delay, but Pittsburgh scored the game’s first goal 31 seconds later when Hornqvist slid Conor Sheary’s centering feed between Lundqvist’s pads. Rangers’ coach Alain Vigneault said Lundqvist will be re-evaluated on Thursday.
Pittsburgh held a 2-0 lead through two periods on goals by Hornqvist and Crosby, but the Rangers cut the deficit in half when Derek Stepan scored a power-play goal during a two-man advantage early in the third.
Tom Kuhnhackl put Pittsburgh ahead 3-1 soon after when he elevated a short-handed goal above Raanta’s left pad and glove hand during a two-on-one with Nick Bonino. Hornqvist finished it less than three minutes later when he jammed a power-play goal past Raanta.
“It gives us a lot of momentum for the next game,” Hornqvist said. “We know how to play and how to beat them. I don’t think we had our best game, but we still came up with a big win.”
Fleury, who hasn’t played since a March 31 win against Nashville, is coming off his second concussion in less than four months. Fleury participated in Wednesday’s morning skate after practicing the previous two days. He was in the crease normally reserved for the starter and he was the first goaltender off the ice, but wasn’t good enough to go for Game 1.
“We didn’t want to reveal who we were going to play and give our opponent an opportunity to prepare for them,” Sullivan said.
Matt Murray, who was elevated to the backup role during the second half of the season, left Saturday’s regular-season finale at Philadelphia with a concussion and hasn’t practiced since.
Zatkoff, meanwhile, was dropped to third-string after Murray’s rise and has appeared in five games since Jan. 1. Zatkoff played Saturday after Murray left with his injury. It was his first appearance since Feb. 20 as Zatkoff carried a .896 save percentage in his previous five appearances.
“I can’t say enough about Jeff and how he’s handled the situation he’s been in over the last couple months,” Sullivan said. “He prepares extremely hard and to his credit, he comes to the rink every day and he’s just been a great pro.”
The Rangers challenged Zatkoff early, peppering him with 12 of the game’s first 15 shots, including several from point-blank range, but the Penguins’ backup stood tall. He was just as impressive in the second period during a Rangers’ power-play and a later three-on-one.
That allowed Crosby to put the Penguins ahead by two goals with 1:04 left in the second period.
Crosby, after a blocked shot in the defensive zone, took a lead pass on a breakaway and beat Raanta with a wrist shot upstairs to the glove side on a breakaway.
“It’s not an easy situation to come into,” Crosby said on Zatkoff. “We kind of had a slow start, (the Rangers) tested him a lot early and he made some big saves. It allowed us to kind of get comfortable and get our game back.”
This series already has a decidedly different tone than the previous two years when the Penguins and Rangers met in the playoffs.
New York rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the Eastern Conference semifinals in 2014 to beat the Penguins in seven games, a series that led to the firing of general manager Ray Shero and coach Dan Bylsma.
Two seasons later, Sullivan will try to get the Penguins past New York after Mike Johnston lost to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers in five games last spring.
Pittsburgh floundered out of the playoffs, near the bottom of the Eastern Conference in December, but Sullivan helped turn it around.
The Penguins won 33 of their last 50 games under Sullivan, including a season-ending 14-2 stretch that rocketed Pittsburgh to second in the Eastern Conference and fourth overall in the league.
The trend continued for Pittsburgh, at least for one game in the series.
“For us, we’re trying to play the same way no matter who is in goal, regardless of who our opponent is or who is playing in goal,” Sullivan said. “That’s not the major concern. It’s about the focus on our group and how we’re trying to play.”
NOTES: Zatkoff recorded his first win since Feb. 6 at Florida. … Pens’ D Olli Maatta played in his first game since suffering an upper-body injury March 24 against New Jersey. … Crosby tied Evgeni Malkin and Tom Barrasso for fourth on the team’s all-time postseason games played list with 101.