The Penguins knew they needed to find some secondary scoring entering Game 3 of their first-round playoff series with the New York Rangers at PPG Paints Arena on Saturday.
To be clear, that notion isn’t an exclusive strategy for overcoming the Rangers.
It’s a convention that applies to virtually every and any team that wants to have a successful postseason.
“Obviously, when you get balanced scoring, it certainly helps your chances to win games,” Penguins coach Mike Sullivan said. “We’re well aware of that.”
That postulate was verified – repeatedly – on Saturday as the Penguins saw the lower reaches of their lineup generate ample offense in a wild 7-4 victory.
The triumph supplied the Penguins with a 2-1 series lead with Game 4 looming on Monday at home.
Through the first two games of the series, four of the Penguins’ five even-strength goals came exclusively from their top line.
Saturday’s outburst featured at least one goal from all three lines as well as two from their second power-play unit. The game-winning score was generated via the second line.
The top line’s lone offense came on an empty net towards the end of regulation.
“Anytime you can help your team win, you’re obviously going to be happy,” said Penguins forward Evan Rodrigues, who had three points and enjoyed his best game in months. “It was a great start for us. We kind of let our foot off the gas there in the second. We came back in the third. We got back to playing the way we started the game. It was a big win for us.”
The Penguins took their first in-game lead of the series 1:57 into regulation. After Penguins forward Jason Zucker, back in the lineup after missing three games due to an undisclosed injury, hit Rangers defenseman Patrik Nemeth off the puck on New York’s end boards, Rangers defenseman Braden Schneider made a weak clearing attempt that was claimed at the left half wall by Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson who chipped the puck back behind the net. Playing the bank off the end boards, Penguins forward Brock McGinn jabbed a backhander off Nemeth’s left hip.
As the puck bounded across the goal line, Nemeth’s 6-foot-4, 230-pound frame pushed the cage off its moorings, prompting referee Kyle Rehman to immediately signal no goal. An ensuing video review overturned the on-ice call. In a statement, the league cited rule Rule 63.7 which allows goals in situations where the “goal post is displaced, either deliberately or accidentally, by a defending player, prior to the puck crossing the goal line between the normal position of the goalposts.”
McGinn was credited with his first goal of the postseason. There were no assists.
The Rangers responded at 5:08 of the first period when their third line got on the scoreboard. Pushing play up the right wing into the offensive zone, Rangers forward Alexis Lafreniere flicked a backhanded cross-ice pass to linemate Kaapo Kakko. From the left circle, Kakko lifted a near-side wrister over goaltender Louis Domingue’s glove for his first goal. Lafreniere and forward Filip Chytil claimed assists.
A power-play score restored a lead for the Penguins at the 8:18 mark. Taking a pass at the right point of the offensive zone, Rodrigues surveyed for a shooting lane and lifted a wrister from above the right circle. With 6-foot-3 and 219-pound Penguins forward Jeff Carter supplying a stout screen above the crease, the puck hit off Shesterkin’s glove and found an avenue through his gear en route to the back of the cage. Carter was credited with his first goal off assists from Rodrigues and Matheson.
Rodrigues got in on the act at the 10:31 mark with another power-play score. Off a pass from Matheson, Rodgiues moved the puck from behind his own blue line and into the offensive zone on the right wing. Veering towards the high slot, Rodrigues fired a wrister wide of the right of the cage that hit off the end boards and caromed back to the front of the crease. Rodrigues corralled the rebound and lifted a wrister over Shesterkin’s blocker for his first goal. Carter and Domingue netted assists.
Rodrigues’ second goal came at 15:15 of the first. After Penguins forward Brian Boyle hounded Schneider into a turnover on New York’s right half wall, Boyle claimed the puck and centered it to the slot for Rodgiues. Using Nemeth as a screen, Rodrigues gripped and ripped a wrister past Shesterkin’s glove. Boyle had the lone assist.
Shesterkin was pulled to open the second period – potentially for humanitarian concerns – and replaced by Alexandar Georgiev.
The Rangers appeared to gain some momentum from that alteration and three times in the second period.
Forward Frank Vatrano, a long-time nemesis of the Penguins, scored his second goal of the postseason at the 6:51 mark. After gaining the offensive zone on the left wing, Rangers forward Chris Kreider saucered a cross-ice forehand pass behind the Penguins’ top defensive pairing of Kris Letang and Matheson to Vatrano. Without any resistance, Vatrano buried a forehand shot between Domingue’s blocker and left ribs on the near side. Kreider and linemate Mika Zibanejad had assists.
Including the regular season, Vatrano has had six goals in nine games against the Penguins in 2021-22.
A goal by Rangers forward Artemi Panarin made it a 4-3 contest at the 7:58 mark of the second. After a frantic goal-mouth scramble, Rangers defenseman Adam Fox settled a puck above the Penguins’ left circle and slid a pass to Panarin. Setting up shop on the dot, Panarin sizzled a wrister over Domingue’s glove on the near side for his second goal. Fox and forward Ryan Strome tallied assists.
The contest was tied, 4-4, at 15:59 of the middle frame with a short-handed goal by Rangers forward Andrew Copp, his third goal in as many games this postseason. After hounding Penguins defenseman Kris Letang into a turnover at his own blue line, Rangers forward Kevin Rooney claimed the puck in the left circle and attacked the net, only to have his forehand shot denied by Domingue’s stick. As Letang crashed into the net dislodging it, Copp charged in and tapped the puck out of the air and into the cage. Rooney had the lone assist.
Things did not start well for the Penguins in the third as they had to kill two power-play opportunities in the first half of the frame after forwards Evgeni Malkin (tripping at the 2:19 mark) and Danton Heinen (slashing at the 6:29 mark) took penalties.
The Penguins snuffed out both opportunities and finished the game a perfect 3 for 3 on the penalty kill after allowing the opposition to score a power-play goal in their previous six consecutive games, including the final four contests of the regular season.
Rangers coach Gerard Gallant lauded Domingue’s play in those moments
“You’ve got to give Louis Domingue credit,” Gallant said. “When it was 4-4, he made two or three great saves on our power play. That was a big part of the game.”
Domingue noted the team’s penalty kill had been a point of focus in recent days.
“I’m not going to give up the strategy but we’ve certainly been talking about it,” Domingue said of the penalty kill. “It’s something we wanted to improve. In the playoffs, you certainly win and lose games by the special teams. We were really focused on winning that battle tonight. I thought our (penalty kill) really gave us momentum tonight, especially in the third (period).”
That momentum manifested itself in the game-winning goal which came from another secondary source at 11:02 of the third.
After Malkin knocked Nemeth off the puck in the Rangers’ right corner, Heinen claimed it low in the right circle and pushed a pedestrian wrister on net that slipped past Georgiev’s left skate for his first goal of the postseason. There were no assists.
First-liner Jake Guentzel scored his fourth goal of the postseason on an empty net at 17:46 of the third. Linemate Sidney Crosby and Matheson registered assists.
Carter added another empty net score at the 18:53 mark to cap the scoring. Assists went to Crosby and McGinn.
Domingue, the journeyman goaltender who was extolled with chants of his name throughout most of the evening, made 32 saves on 36 shots to win his first home game of 2021-22 – each of his two NHL contests during the regular season were on the road – and saw his folk hero status grow by leaps and bounds.
“I’m taking it one day at a time, one moment at a time,” Domingue said. “The crowd really kept me in this game tonight. Coming into the third and having to kill two penalties like that and having to make a couple saves, they gave me confidence, definitely.”
The Penguins definitely seem to have extra confidence in their secondary scorers after Saturday.
“’Trying to play the game the right way’ is the phrase that we always use and that means an awful lot of things,” Sullivan said. “But when you’re playing the game the right way and you get opportunities and you put pucks at the net, you’re focusing on the process, you try to control the details, sometimes the puck goes in and sometimes it doesn’t.
“Tonight, it went in for us.”
• In his return to the lineup, Zucker logged 13:11 of ice time on 19 shifts and had three shots on three attempts. He also led the game with seven hits. He also drew a penalty that led to a power-play opportunity that led to the Penguins’ third goal.
• Rodrigues scored three points in the first period. Only franchise icon Mario Lemieux has scored more points in a single period.
Lemieux had four goals in the first period of a 10-7 home win against the Philadelphia Flyers at the Civic Arena in Game 5 of a Patrick Division final on April 25, 1989. That game is most infamous for Flyers goaltender Ron Hextall, now the Penguins’ general manager, chasing Penguins forward Robbie Brown after a goal.
Lemieux also had a two-goal, two-assist effort in the second period of a 6-4 home win against the Washington Capitals in Game 3 of a Patrick Division semifinal series on April 23, 1992.
-Rodrigue’s last multi-point game was a two-assist effort in a 6-3 home win against the Arizona Coyotes on Jan. 25.
• Domingue became the fifth goaltender in franchise history to record a point (all assists) in a postseason game. His predecessors are Tom Barrasso (seven), Marc-Andre Fleury (two), Frank Pietrangelo (one) and Ken Wregget (one).
• Fleury was the last one to do it. He had a secondary assist on a goal by Malkin during a 6-4 road loss to the New York Islanders in Game 4 of an Eastern Conference quarterfinal series on May 7, 2013.
• Crosby (20 points) surpassed Montreal Canadiens icon Henri Richard (18) for most career postseason points against the Rangers in NHL history.
•On the Rangers’ first goal, Kakko, Lafreniere and Chytil each recorded their first career postseason point.
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Seth Rorabaugh is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Seth by email at [email protected] or via Twitter .