The Rangers had their eye on this game against Pittsburgh ever since the start of the second period in Newark the other night.
In what was their most complete game of the season, the Rangers skated for 60 minutes, were hard on the puck and outplayed the Pittsburgh Penguins in an impressive 5-1 win.
After two consecutive wins over Stanley Cup contenders Tampa Bay and Carolina, the Rangers had a 2-0 lead against the New Jersey Devils this past Tuesday night, but they gave up five unanswered goals in the second period and were humiliated in a 7-4 loss.
“Guys were embarassed the other night. They come back and they bounced back, that’s what I like about our team,” head coach Gerard Gallant after a very satisfying win.
Gallant decided to shake up the lines and it paid off almost immediately.
Alexis LaFreniere had been playing right wing on the top line with Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider, but Gallant moved him to left wing on the third line with Filip Chytil and Barclay Goodrow. At 2:07 of the first period, LaFreniere scored his 14th goal to give the Rangers a 1-0 lead.
“He [LaFreniere] was really good, good line switch,” Gallant said with a wink. “He had no issue where he’s playing.”
Chytil fed LaFreniere who was cutting to the net and he put a nifty little back hander past Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry, who shutout the Rangers in Pittsburgh, a little less than a month ago.
“I saw we had a two on one so I jumped in, nice play by Fil,” the 20 year old said. “I was a little bit by my myself at the net and I mean I just tried to make a move, so I was lucky enough it went in.”
LaFreniere extended his career high points scoring streak to five straight games and didn’t mind being at his more familiar position of left wing on the third line. “It was good to come back to my natural side,” he said.
A little less than two minutes later, Zibanejad fed a streaking Kreider, who had just come off the bench. The Rangers leading goal scorer was in all alone and he beat Jarry with a wrister for his 43rd goal of the season and a 2-0 lead. “We had a lot of jump tonight, we jumped on them early, that was the difference obviously,” said Gallant.
18 seconds later, Frank Vatrano who replaced LaFreniere on the top line, scored his second goal as a Ranger to make it 3-0. Vatrano was in front of the Penguins’ net and buried the puck past Jarry off of a beautiful pass from Zibanejad.
The Rangers were playing their most dominant period of the season but with a little over four minutes remaining, Dryden Hunt took a double minor for high sticking, giving Pittsburgh a huge opportunity to get back in the game.
The Rangers penalty kill was up to the task as they did a superb job in limiting the Penguins to just two shots on goal and they skated off to a standing ovation from the Garden faithful with a 3-0 lead after one.
“To me the turning point was killing that four minute penalty at the end of the first period,” Gallant said. [If] They woulda got one it’s a different story but it takes a lot out of them when they don’t score on that four minute power play.”
In the second, the Rangers were shorthanded but Zibanejad broke in on left wing in a two on one with Kreider in an eerily similar play to the other night in Newark. That night, Kreider made a poor decision by trying to pass the puck. This time, Kreider shot the puck and he buried it for his second of the game and his 44th of the season.
When the TV broadcast switched to a close up of Kreider, you could read his lips saying, “I shot the puck.”
The Penguins finally solved Igor Shesterkin, who made some nice saves but wasn’t really in distress for most of the night. Jeff Carter scored at the six minute mark to spoil the shutout but Andrew Copp scored his first goal as a Ranger with a little over two minutes to seal the deal.
Zibanejad had a three assist night and reached 500 career points while Kreider also had a three point night with two goals and an assist.
“That’s the way we can play. We played pretty good in Tampa but tonight was probably our most complete game,” said Gallant.
Pittsburgh was without Evgeni Malkin due to a non Covid illness while the Ranger scratched Ryan Reaves, Julian Gauthier and Greg McKegg.
The win pulled the Rangers to within one point of second place Pittsburgh with a game in hand and 17 left to play.