PITTSBURGH — How many times can the New York Rangers dig themselves into a hole and climb back out?
At least one more, as of Friday night.
The Blueshirts came out flat in another win-or-go-home situation at PPG Paints Arena, but stormed back from a two-goal deficit for the second consecutive game. Chris Kreider capped the 5-3 win over the Penguins in Game 6 of their first-round playoff series by scoring the decisive goal with 1:28 remaining, sending the series back to Madison Square Garden for Game 7 at 7 pm Sunday.
“We show no quit,” said Mika Zibanejad, who had four points on the night, including an assist on the winning goal. “That’s what I love about this team.”
The Rangers have endured an endless cycle of ups-and-downs in this series, with their play fluctuating from one game to next — and often from one period to the next. But what they’ve lacked in consistency they’ve made up for in resiliency.
SPORTS NEWSLETTER:Sign up now to get daily updates sent to your inbox
Falling behind early
The Penguins were playing without star forward Sidney Crosby, who sat out after suffering an upper-body injury in Game 5, which ESPN’s Emily Kaplan reported was a concussion. Yet, that didn’t appear to slow them down in the early going.
The Rangers spent much of the first period pinned in their own zone. Their attempts to clear the puck were futile and lacking purpose, which would often result in Pittsburgh regaining possession quickly.
Eventually, it came back to bite them.
You couldn’t blame Igor Shesterkin for the first one. The Vezina and Hart Trophy finalist stopped three consecutive shots on that sequence, but the fourth was a backhanded rebound from Jeff Carter that made it 1-0 at the 14:12 mark.
Just 1:36 later, Jake Guentzel found Bryan Rust wide open for a backdoor pass and a one-timer that made it 2-0. Rust nestled into a spot that was vacated by Jacob Trouba, who was the subject of ire from the Pittsburgh crowd throughout the night for his Game 5 hit that resulted in Crosby’s concussion.
“For me in the first period, we weren’t skating,” Rangers head coach Gerard Gallant said. “We weren’t paying attention to the game. We weren’t working hard enough. And then it all changed.”
‘Have fun, Mika’
The hapless start put the Rangers’ season on life support, but much like they did in Game 5, they came roaring out of their slumber in the second period.
Zibanejad has been the subject of criticism throughout this series for his lack of production. His line with Chris Kreider and Frank Vatrano had been outscored 7-2, entering Friday, with Zibanejad failing to score a goal through the first five games.
He looked outmatched in his head-to-head battle with Crosby, but the Game 6 absence of the Penguins’ best player lightened the load for No. 93.
“Mika puts a lot of pressure on herself,” Gallant said. “He hates seeing a little minus-two beside his name before the game. But you just gotta relax and go play your game. ‘Have fun, Mika. Go play and don’t worry about the other players and the other team. Worry about your game,’ because he’s a great player and he carried us all year long. He felt loose tonight.”
Zibanejad struck five seconds into the Rangers’ first power play at the 5:05 mark of the second period, winning a faceoff before unloading a one-timer from the ball of the right circle on a feed from Ryan Strome to cut the deficit to 2 -one.
Then, just 1:16 later, he added a second goal on an even-strength one-timer, this one on a setup from Adam Fox.
“Obviously, it’s nice to see the puck go in,” Zibanejad said when asked how he dealt with the scoring slump. “I don’t think it’s easy because then I would have been able to stay positive through all of this. But I think a lot of credit to the teammates around, the people around. At the end of the day, if the hard work is there, it’s going to turn around eventually. Playing with the players I play with, I just try to do the right thing, day in and day out.”
Zibanejad then turned to Kreider, who was sitting next to him on the podium and has been a constant source of support and positivity.
“A lot of credit to this guy right here, too,” he said. “I’ve been playing with him for six years and we’ve been kind of helping each other out through all types of times. It’s just trust yourself, work hard and go from there.”
Then Kreider chimed in.
“Even when the puck is not going in for him, he still does so many things are under appreciated,” he said. “It’s insane. I think the only people who can really see it are the ones who are maybe in our room or understand the game. He’s been getting his chances. You knew he was going to break through. I think the playoffs sometimes can reveal who you are and the kind of character you have.
“For him to stay with his game and continue to work, continue to work – I mean, he’s been a huge leader for us all year. He’s been an absolute horse. He’s been our engine and you knew it was gonna turn for him and you knew he was gonna have his moment – and he’s certainly not done.”
An iPad throw to remember
Zibanejad’s breakout tied the score at 2-2 – and he nearly completed the hat trick a few minutes later.
He came out of the penalty box and immediately got a breakaway opportunity, but the shot hit the post. TV cameras later showed him examining the play on an iPad from the bench, which prompted Kreider to reach over and throw it away.
Why? Because he didn’t want any doubt or negativity creeping back in.
“He was looking at the breakaway and I heard him start second guessing his move,” Kreider said. “I didn’t really like that.”
A ‘wow’ moment from Igor Shesterkin
The Rangers were on another power play later in the second period when the Penguins innocently cleared the puck. But there are no moments to relax when Shesterkin is lurking.
He came out of the net and flung a jaw-dropping pass to the opposite blue line, sending Zibanejad off to the races. Pens goalie Louis Domingue made the initial save, but the rebound trickled out for an easy finish for Kreider.
“I saw this line and I just tried to give a good pass,” Shesterkin said. “I saw a couple players go to change. I think it’s not dangerous.”
“His passing is sometimes better than all of us,” added Zibanejad. “That pass certainly was something. I kind of – I don’t want to say expect it – but I kind of saw him look up, and it’s honestly weird to say with a pass coming from a goalie, but I just tried to get open. They were kind of changing and it landed perfectly flat on my tape.”
Shesterkin finished with 31 saves to earn his first road win of the series.
He was pulled after poor performances in Games 3 and 4, which added to the pressure Friday.
“You just try to forget about the game,” he said when asked about he felt after his early exits. “It doesn’t matter if you win or lose. You need to win four in the series. I was pulled out twice, (but) it doesn’t matter. Coach believes in me and I would like to say thanks. I just tried to find my game.”
It didn’t help that Pittsburgh fans taunted him increasingly as the series wore on.
They were relentless on Friday, but Shesterkin was able to block it out more effectively than in previous games.
“It’s very difficult,” he said. “They try to go to my mind, but I try to keep focus. When they try to say, ‘Igor,’ I just say, ‘Okay.'”
‘Something special about this group’
Shesterkin’s memorable assist gave the Rangers a stunning 3-2 lead, with the three goals coming in a span of 8:43. But it wouldn’t last long.
With 3:24 left in the second period, an ill-advised cross-ice pass from Trouba was intercepted by Evgeni Malkin. The Pens’ fill-in top-line center didn’t waste the opportunity, putting a forehand shot past Shesterkin to tie the game at 3-3.
That’s how it remained until late in the third period when Kreider’s shot bounced over Domingue’s head and in.
That shifted all of the momentum to the Rangers, who have defied the odds and will head back to MSG for the most exciting event in all of sports — Game 7.
“The guys that we have in there, I feel like it’s a big family,” Zibanejad said. “Everyone wants the same thing. Everyone’s there working for each other. Everyone wants success for the guy sitting next to you. It’s honestly one of the biggest reasons why we’re here today. We’ve shown it throughout the year, throughout this series, and that’s something that – you just don’t get that for free. It’s something special about this group and we’re just gonna keep going.”
Vincent Z. Mercogliano is the New York Rangers beat reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Follow him on Twitter @vzmercogliano.