Penguins superstar Evgeni Malkin said the Rangers “Probably have the best team in the league” on Friday before being shown firsthand how that may be true. In front of a nationally televised audience and a raucous NYC crowd already in a festive mood following the New York Knicks stirring comeback home win over the top-seeded Denver Nuggets earlier in the day, the Blueshirts bludgeoned Pittsburg 6-0.
Led by a balanced offensive attack and 34 saves from Igor Shesterkin, who recorded his second shutout of the season. New York improved to 5-0-1 in their past six games with their second win in three days over their Metropolitan division rivals and lowered their magic number towards clinching a playoff spot to 13 points with 13 regular season games remaining.
For the 10th time this season, which tied Red Wings’ Dylan Larkin and the Avalanche’s Mikko Rantanen for the league lead, Mika Zibanejad got the scoring started.
Following a Jacob Trouba shot from the blue line, which hit a ton of traffic, Zibanejad, from the lower left circle, backhanded a puck right past Tristan Jarry at the 5:16 mark for his third consecutive game-opening goal and a 1-0 Rangers lead. It was another splendid all-around performance by the New York center, who added two assists, two hits, a takeaway, and won 52.2% of his faceoffs.
SIX FOR THE TOP SIX:
The NHL world has raved about the Rangers’ top six since the trade deadline. Still, the proclamations hadn’t been backed up by their play until this week. The offense showed signs of their chemistry coming together in Tuesday’s 5-3 over the Washington Capitals and Thursday’s 4-2 win over the Penguins before Saturday’s explosion.
While five different Rangers made up the six goals and five players each had multi-point games, the most impressive part of the play from the top two lines was their forechecking and relentless puck retrieval in the neutral zone, making for sustained offensive zone pressure. As time ticked down on the first period, Malkin cross-checked Schneider from behind, which earned him a two-minute minor for boarding, and putting New York on the power play where they wasted little time cashing in.
Anticipating Pittsburg’s clearing attempt, Patrick Kane lifted Ryan Poehling’s stick, allowing the puck to hit Adam Fox’a blade, who then found Artemi Panarin on the left side for a snipe with 10 seconds remaining, doubling New York’s lead. The tally was the breadman’s 14th in the regular season against the Penguins, the most against any opponent in his career.
The onslaught would continue in the second, as following a Shesterkin stop on Mark Friedman, a three-on-one developed the other way where Zibanejad fed Vladimir Tarasenko, who his fifth goal as a Ranger, which only trails the player he was agreed for, Sammy Blais(6) of the ST Louis Blues for the most by a player who was traded at this year’s deadline.
Less than three minutes after the Tarasenkshow made his presence felt, Chris Kreider did too, scoring his 31st of the season and sixth in the campaign’s four meetings against the Pens, which ended Jarry’s night as he was pulled for Casey DeSmith. On the play, Vincent Trocheck sprinted out of the box following New York’s defense holding Pittsburg shot-less in response to his penalty, and found Kane, who then backhanded the biscuit over to Kreider for the tap-in and a 4-0 Rangers lead.
As the MSG crowd chastised the Penguins starter, captain Jacob Trouba off passes from Zibanejad and Tarasenko(Who’s 13 points in the most by a player this season who was dealt at the deadline), banked one off the goaltender’s mask before Kane(Who has 7 points in his last 8 games), fed Panarin down low to punctuate the four-goal frame.
Ironically, Pittsburg was the better team in the first 20 minutes and most of the third period. Only Shesterkin wasn’t having it and made 15 first-period saves, masking New York’s defensive breakdowns. “You win 6-0; I think that says many good things,” Kane said. “Igor maybe hid some of our mistakes a bit, but it was a good team effort.”
The goaltender has yearned for his first shutout since November and wouldn’t be denied on this night. Sharp from the get-go, he stonewalled Josh Archibald a mere 2:40 into the contest before robbing Rikard Rakkel and Jake Guentzel in succession leading to the first of many “Igor” chants from the Garden faithful.
A few minutes later, Shesterkin denied Malkin and Jason Zucker through screens as the shots kept coming his way. With seven minutes remaining in the opening frame, he was up to 13 saves which, on average, is one per minute. The netminder was zoned in from start to finish, even avenging his delay of game penalty with a brilliant poke check on a Zucker breakaway chance before stonewalling Drew O’Connor with the glove similarly.
Yet as he usually does, Shesterkin would save his best stop for last, as midway through the third, he launched into a scorpion pose and lifted his legs from under him to deny Mikael Granlund.
It means a lot to me, of course,” Shesterkin said of the shutout in his postgame interview. “I’m so happy right now.” The reigning Vezina winner has posted a .900 save % in his last four starts and has shown no signs of slowing down. “He’s been in a pretty good rhythm in the last two or roughly three weeks,” head coach Gerard Gallant said, “Goaltending is a big part of it going down the stretch here. Keep playing well and keep trying to win hockey games.”
After the team went penalty-free on Thursday, for the first time since January 21, 2019, also against Pittsburg, the Rangers penalty kill returned to work on Saturday and were up to the challenge.
The team’s 6/6 performance improved their recent power play kill stretch to 21 of their last 23, with the only unsuccessful attempts coming in last Sunday’s 3-2 overtime road loss, where the Penguins scored twice on the man-advantage, including Kris Letang’s overtime winner. The big night saw an improved overall percentage to 80.2%, jumping two spots from 16th to 14th in the NHL.
MARV’S 3 STARS:
Honorable Star: K’Andre Miller(2 assists, 22:55 of ice time)
3 Jacob Trouba( one goal, one assist, +\-4 in 20:54 of ice time)
2 Artemi Panarin (2 goals, 2 shots, +\-4, 15:32 of ice time)
1 Igor Shesterkin(34 saves on 34 shots, +2.54 Goals Saved Above Expected)