PITTSBURGH – While the outcome of Friday night's Game 1 won't decide the series, how things unfolded just might.
The Pittsburgh Penguins won a whoever-has-last-shot-wins opener of what could be a classic best-of-seven East semi against the New York Rangers. They did it when Evgeni Malkin found himself in an unlikely spot on the ice – in front of the goal looking to deflect a puck – and did just that off a Sidney Crosby drive at 18:19 for a 5-4 victory.
The sequence capped a late Pittsburgh power play made possible by a cheesy interference call in the neutral zone more than a minute earlier. The win wasn't safe until the final buzzer, which came 14 seconds after Jaromir Jagr clanked a would-be tying drive off the far post.
And that only begins to tell the story.
"The game was entertaining," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "I'm not sure either coach is happy moving forward in terms of execution."
What will go a long way in the series, and determine who wins it, is the resiliency shown on both sides. Never mind eight days off, Pittsburgh came out breathing fire, but New York goalie Henrik Lundqvist was fantastic and stopped the only eight shots taken in the game – all by the hosts – in the opening 6:48, which included two Penguin power plays.
Then, almost out of nowhere, the Rangers ripped off three straight goals to own a commanding lead less than four minutes into the second period. How often has New York blown three-goal leads in its playoff history? Well, the Rangers were 93-1 during such games before Friday. And Pittsburgh had rallied only one time in its vaunted playoff history to win a game it once trailed by three goals.
"We never quit, even after three goals," Penguins coach Michel Therrien said. "That's a great accomplishment for that young team against (the) Rangers, who are really, really committed defensively."
Pittsburgh may have had it too easy during a four-game sweep of the Ottawa Senators in Round 1, and the Penguins learned early it wouldn't be the same against their Atlantic Division rivals. But the key is how they responded to adversity. This young roster is visiting the second round for the first time, and although great things are forecast – justifiably so – there are many tests along the way, and that's no slouch of an opponent.
The Rangers roll out an impressive roster that's a mix of All-Star veterans with an impressive supporting cast of youngsters. On one end of the star system there is Scott Gomez, Brendan Shanahan, Martin Straka, Chris Drury and Jagr with Marc Staal, Brandon Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Nigel Dawes and Lundqvist on the other end. Don't forget about key figures including Sean Avery, Michal Rozsival and Fedor Tyutin.
The Penguins are not facing a wounded Senators team anymore. The Rangers are a definite threat, and the way Pittsburgh responded was worth noting. It's the kind of effort and result that makes one wonder if the Hockey Gods are smiling on the Baby Pens.
"It's a race to four (wins)," Renney said. "We'll be here Sunday; we'll be ready to go."
They were ready to push back after getting outshot 8-0 early as the Rangers broke through on a Straka power-play goal at 13:40 for the only goal of the first period. Straka scored from behind the goal line when his pass intended for an open Dubinsky in front deflected in front and past Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.
Drury struck with a controversial goal at 1:52 into the second. He redirected a Staal drive with a questionable high stick, a goal that counted after a lengthy review. When Avery blew a shot past Fleury at 3:37 the question was whether the contest would disintegrate into a series of message-sending by the Pens.
Instead, Jarkko Ruutu scored his second of the postseason at 8:13.
"We got a break on the Ruutu goal," Therrien said. "And then we knew we were in the game."
They were in it big time, along with the standing-room only crowd of 17,132, when Pascal Dupuis scored his first of the playoffs just 14 seconds later to cut the deficit to 3-2.
"You've got to push and keep doing what we were doing to put us in that position," said Renney, agreeing his team gave Pittsburgh too much respect after building a big lead.
Pittsburgh's 4-3 lead lasted barely five minutes before Gomez beat Fleury at 10:04 as overtime loomed. That was before, however, Hossa blocked a Gomez shot and took off on a late-game breakaway. Gomez poke-checked the puck away with a dive, but that touch put the Penguins on their third power play of the night because Straka was called for interfering with Crosby just to the right and a little behind Hossa.
It was a surprisingly close call to make that late in a playoff game.
"I think he was just trying to get back and get position on me," Crosby said of Straka.
"What did I think of the call on Straka?" Renney asked rhetorically. "I just answered it. Next question."
The resulting power play proved decisive. Once set up, Crosby sized up an opportunity from the right boards to try and put rubber on Lundqvist's glove side. Malkin redirected it at 18:19 for his third goal and the game-winner.
"I didn't know if it was going to go wide if Geno wasn't there, I was just trying to find a hole," Crosby said.
He found a hole all right, but what will most be remembered is how the Pens found their way out of one.