What a great ending to an amazing series.
The New York Rangers could have gotten away with it at times. They trailed by 3-1 in this series and all-important goalkeeper Igor Shesterkin looked unbeatable, drawn in games 3 and 4. The Pittsburgh Penguins finished the series with the most perilous chances of any team in the first round; The Rangers were among the worst to have them.
But New York never gave up and always had some pressure. Facing a fifth game elimination, New York fell 2-0 and took the 5-3 win anyway. In Game 6, they trailed 2-0 after the first half and won 5-3 again. In Game 7, they were down 2-1 and then 3-2 after the second half. Mika Zibanijad needed a star to take on the bigger stage at Madison Square Garden, tying it up with a sinister shot, and Artemi Panarin snatched it up in overtime after a game too quiet for him up until that point.
Shesterkin was brilliant and the primary MVP again.
“We’re kind of kids at heart at this point,” Chris Kreider told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron after Sunday’s win. “We definitely had moments where we didn’t play the way we wanted to, but we went back and forth time and time again. Our goalkeeper was clearly our best player in every game.”
It’s a huge step for the Rangers, who took their first win in the series since bringing back the tools a few years ago and have done so in a dramatic fashion that will make an impression in the future. Taking on Carolina next, a strong defensive team to dominate the disc, will be a challenge for the still young Rangers.
For the penguins, it will be out of season for key questions, crucial decisions, and possibly the end of an era.
Igor Shesterkin comes big in Game 7
The Penguins had a number of great opportunities to open the scoring early, and consolidate their lead with one goal, but Shesterkin was brilliant time and time again.
Before each of New York’s first two goals, Shesterkin made a big stop just moments before.
It was the roughest two weeks of Shesterkin’s season, but it was more of a reflection of the stage ahead of him than a fiasco on the part of the goalkeeper. Shesterkin got a heavy lift in Round 1, starting with a 105-minute loss and 79 extra saves in the first game. No goalkeeper faced more shots, more dangerous shots, or more saves in the opening round than Shesterkin, who was even pulled twice along the way.
For the 26-year-old, appearing and introducing the brand into Game 7 is a huge moment for him and the Rangers. For Shesterkin, the early tone of his career determined that he was a big player in the game; For Rangers, it’s knowing that your own goalkeeper can be a game stealer at the most critical time.
Tip cover for Tristan Gary
When the Penguins were eliminated last season, Gary took most of the blame on Chin with an 888-percent keeping performance. His entire 2021-22 season was a redemption as he delivered one of the best years of any NHL goalkeeper. But an injury just before the playoffs kept him out of action and made goal-scoring the centerpiece of the story in Pittsburgh once again.
Casey DeSmith started well, then got injured in the first match. Luis Domingo had two moments in games 1 and 4, but he was actually a goalkeeper from the third series.
With consecutive losses and facing the prospect of letting the series lead 3-1, the pens turned to Gary in Game 7 for the first time in this playoff, and one month into his last game.
He answered the bell as well, making a slew of big balls of his own to take on Shesterkin before he was last checked by him in overtime.
It was mentioned in the broadcast several times that Gary looked a little curvy and it is possible that he is still injured. Certainly not 100 per cent. When asked about his condition after the match, Gary paused for a moment and replied, “I was able to play.”
“I was only able to play, I was grateful for that. I was grateful that they trusted me for it. And if anything happened, I wanted to be involved in it. I wanted to give my best.”
The “terrible rule” that was stung by the penguins
Judges always have to take account of the narrative in some way.
In this Game 7, the decisive moment came less than six minutes before the end of the match with the Penguins staying one goal ahead. New York was on the offensive and Alexis Lavrinier was tied up with Marcus Peterson, whose helmet had fallen in the fray. The Penguins blueliner, with his side getting shot at on the defensive end, immediately skated to the bench. By the time his replacement came back, Mika Zibanijad had a great chance to tie the match and he didn’t miss it.
Under the rule, Peterson had to either withdraw to the seat after losing his helmet, or quickly pick it up from the ice and put it back on. Rule 9-6 states that:
“An ice player whose helmet is taken off during play shall be liable to a minor penalty if he does not come off the playing surface, or recover his helmet properly on his head (with or without his chin strap attached), within a reasonable period of time. It is reasonable for a player playing on the disc or who is near the disc and is involved in play at the time his helmet is taken off, the opportunity to complete the play before the ice is off or his helmet to be retrieved and replaced.”
If you think Lavrinier deliberately took off the helmet, as Pence pens coach Mike Sullivan did, you could argue that Rangers should have been awarded a penalty in the play. It was a crucial turning point in the match.
“I think it smells bad,” Sullivan said of the base. “He should take off. His helmet was taken off on purpose. But that’s the rule.”
Sidney Crosby added: “I think tonight was an example of one game anything can happen and we didn’t get that extra goal there late in the game. And you know, maybe it ends up being a terrible rule to be the teams in the game.”
Artemi Panarin wasn’t too impressive… until he was
If Rangers are eliminated on Sunday, it wouldn’t be surprising to learn of some of the injuries that have been hampering Panarin. The New York star was not at his usual level. His streak was crossed four times, he was crossed by four, and although Panarin scored six shots at the net, he mostly stayed out with them.
But with Panarin on the ice, Rangers edged out the competition 1-0. The OT winner was the only difference.
As we know, Panarin is a weapon and can strike at any moment. In the final minutes of regulation and at the edge of overtime, legacies are built when the best players find a path and rise as a unique team between a long period of guesswork and regret, and moving into the second round feeling good about your cup chances.
In Game 7, neither Crosby nor Yevgeny Malkin were. It was Panarin who turned his quiet game into a very boisterous finish at MSG.
“He’s the guy, when it was getting close to extra time, I said to myself, ‘I know he’ll score if we score.’ If we score the winning goal, it’s him,” said Rangers coach Gerard Gallant.
Where do penguins go from here?
Crosby will be back, that’s what we know a lot about.
But what about Malkin and Chris Letang? He will begin asking questions to two longtime UFA commentators and core members of the Championship of the Penguins.
As long as Crosby is around the Penguins, he won’t be a rebuilding team. Signed for another two years, Jake Guentzel has already finished as the player to score the highest points from the first round with eight goals in seven matches. Gary played his way back to being a comfortable No. 1, although the team might consider upgrading down the depth chart. Jeff Carter re-signed for two years and wouldn’t give this deal to a 37-year-old if the plan were to scale back.
Even considering all that, here’s the picture: The Penguins lost the opening round in four straight years and were beaten by a team en route to promotion. They made progress in all three elimination matches and lost each one. They allowed the potential closet to dry out almost and were held tight in the first round on this deadline due to the need to keep an eye on the future.
Some amount of change is expected, but how drastic? $9.5 million from Malkin is going out of the books and there will be some debate over what the extension should look like in this situation when he turns 36 in July. Letang is also set to be paid $7.25 million at the opening of the free agency, and although he was enjoying one of his best seasons in 2021-22, the defending man feels the two are likely to test the situation. Brian Rost, an important supplemental goalscorer in this squad, is also a UFA and likely priced out of Pittsburgh.
With Malkin and Letang, it could be the end of an era that brought three Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh and 16 playoffs. Missing one might leave a huge gap, but the flexibility of a new cap has been discovered to try a different approach. Losing both will change the franchise in a way that makes it hard to imagine what the next chapter might be like.
“It’s something we knew was a possibility heading into the playoffs, but it’s not something I’ve tried to think about too much,” Crosby said.