PITTSBURGH — Chris Kreider doesn’t believe in dwelling on the past. There is only the next play for the New York Rangers‘ star forward.
It’s why Kreider threw linemate Mika Zibanejad’s iPad to the ground out of frustration after Zibanejad stewed over a breakaway during the second period against Pittsburgh’s Louie Domingue on Friday night that ended up with Zibanejad hitting the post.
Kreider told Zibanejad to stop second-guessing himself. It was a good move. It didn’t go in. It happens. Just keep playing.
So Zibanejad did. Kreider, too. And thanks to their relentlessness the resilient Rangers are heading back home for a Game 7.
The two longtime teammates scored two goals apiece — including Kreider’s blast from the point that hit Domingue high then sailed over the goaltender’s head and rolled into the net with 1:28 remaining to lift the Rangers to a 5-3 win over the Sidney Crosby-less Penguins to push their thrilling first-round playoff series to the limit.
“Regardless of the situation, I’m proud of the way this team competes,” Kreider said. “Whether we’re down, whether we’re up, we’re trying to get to our game, trying to play the same way.”
As they have done repeatedly throughout this topsy-turvy series the Rangers rallied from a multiple-goal deficit and will host Game 7 on Sunday at Madison Square Garden with some serious momentum.
“We battled back after (falling behind) and that showed some character in our group,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.
A group looking to advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2017. New York will get a chance thanks to the play of Kreider and Zibanejad, four assists from Adam Fox and 31 saves by Igor Shesterkin, who rebounded from two shaky performances at PPG Paints Arena earlier in the series to silence the chants of “IIIIGOOORRRR” that rained down on him frequently.
“He battles, it’s what he does,” Kreider said of Shesterkin, a finalist for both the Vezina and Hart trophies. “He’s been our best player all year and he continues to be our best player.”
Pittsburgh’s best player, by contrast, was forced to watch his team let a chance to advance slip away from afar. The Penguins played without Crosby, who is dealing with an upper-body injury that forced the captain to miss his first playoff game in five years.
For long stretches, it looked as if Pittsburgh would find a way to move on even with Crosby’s familiar No. 87 out of the lineup. Bryan Rust and Jeff Carter scored during the first period to stake the Penguins to a 2-0 lead and Evgeni Malkin’s breakaway late in the second knotted the game at 3 after the Rangers had surged in front.
In the end, it didn’t matter. Shesterkin held firm in the third period and Domingue — who’s played solidly if not spectacularly while filling in for injured starters Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith — let in his first truly soft goal of the playoffs when Kreider’s relatively innocuous shot from the point hit the goaltender’s glove then fluttered behind him.
“Nobody said it was going to be easy,” Pittsburgh defenseman Kris Letang said. “They’re a really good team. They have a lot of skilled players that can score goals. It’s a race to four and we have to regroup, stay positive and get the job done.”
SPECIAL TEAMS ISSUES
The Penguins were in control early in the second period when forward Evan Rodrigues was issued a penalty for roughing after taking exception to a hit along the boards by New York’s Ryan Lindgren.
It took Zibanejad all of 5 seconds to score with the man advantage to provide the Rangers with a needed jolt and give him his first goal of the postseason. Zibanejad’s second came just 1:16 later on another laser, this one from the right circle.
Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan chastised Rodrigues for failing to keep his emotions in check.
“That’s a necessary part of winning at this time of the year,” Sullivan said.
So is scoring when you’re on a 5-on-3. The Penguins failed to do so early in Game 5 in New York. They failed to do it again on Friday, generating little despite having 1:07 with the two-man advantage. Pittsburgh went 0 for 3 on the power play on the night while the Rangers went 2 for 3.
“I think I’m probably stating the obvious, but the special teams was the difference,” Sullivan said. “We have to be better.”
GAME 7 UNCERTAINTY
Crosby skated early Friday morning with Pittsburgh skating and skills development coach Ty Hennes but was not part of the Penguins’ optional skate. His status for Sunday is unknown.
Jarry, who’s been out since mid-April with a broken foot, took shots during the skate but was held out once again. Penguins forward Rickard Rakell missed his fifth straight game after taking a high hit in the series opener. Pittsburgh lost veteran forward Brian Boyle in the first period. Sullivan said Boyle was being evaluated for a lower-body injury.
PREDICTING THE FUTURE?
Gallant said before the playoffs began that the only time home ice matters in the postseason is in Game 7.
“I hope I’m right,” Gallant said. “We’ve played well in our building. And like I said, it’s a Game 7. Winner goes on. Loser goes home. So I think it’s going to be a great game.”
The Penguins, by the way, are unbeaten all-time (6-0) when playing Game 7 on the road.