The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins would have been hard-pressed to repeat the drama of the opening game of their playoff series, which the Penguins won in triple overtime.
The division rivals battled again on Thursday, only this time, the younger Rangers held off the more experienced Penguins despite the efforts of their endlessly creative star center, Sidney Crosby.
After 106 minutes of hockey on Tuesday, the question was whether the Rangers – and particularly their goalie, Igor Shesterkin, who had stopped 79 shots – would bounce back. After an uneven start, Shesterkin and the Rangers found their jogging in the second period and went on to win, 5-2, in convincing fashion.
“It was a good first step in the right direction,” said Rangers left wing Artemi Panarin, who scored a goal and had two assists.
The victory evened the best-of-seven series, which now moves to Pittsburgh for Game 3 on Saturday and Game 4 on Monday. It also keeps the youthful Rangers, who returned to the playoffs for the first time in five seasons after amassing 108 points in the regular season, in the hunt for the Stanley Cup.
That’s good news for the NHL, which thrives when its older clubs are winning.
Since the playoff brackets were finalized last week, the top-selling merchandise on Fanatics, the largest online seller of licensed sporting goods, belonged to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Rangers and Boston Bruins, all “Original Six” teams.
For the entire regular season, the top four best selling teams were the Seattle Kraken (who made their debut in 2021), the Bruins, Maple Leafs and Rangers. The Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins took the next two spots.
Sales of Rangers merchandise jumped 190 percent compared to last season, Fanatics said.
“Nothing against the Flames or teams in the Southeast, but that original group of teams is still pretty darn strong,” said Andy Dolich, a longtime marketing executive with the Oakland A’s, San Francisco 49ers and Memphis Grizzlies, who sold season tickets for the Washington Capitals in the 1970s just after they joined the NHL
The league’s oldest teams have also bolstered television viewership. The number of people tuning into the first eight games of the playoffs on ESPN and ESPN2 this week was 15 percent higher than the first two nights of the playoffs in 2019, before the pandemic coronavirus.
On Monday, the first night of the playoffs, the most-viewed game was the Boston Bruins-Carolina Hurricanes matchup. On Tuesday, the Penguins-Rangers triple-overtime game was the most-watched opening playoff game on cable television since 1994, according to ESPN.
“There’s equal passion across all 32 teams, but quality and quantity are two different things,” said Emily Kaplan, who covers the NHL for the network. “The equity the original six teams have built is hard to touch.”
The Rangers were hard to touch during the second half on Thursday.
They struck first less than seven minutes in when Panarin, their best passer, held the puck in the left slot and waited until he could find Andrew Copp, who fired the puck past Penguins goalie Louis Domingue, who was screened by Ryan Strome.
Two minutes later, Crosby stole the puck from Panarin at center ice, skated into the offensive zone and lost the puck, but it found its way to Jacob Guentzel, who shot it past Shesterkin.
For the first 20 minutes, the Rangers looked like the more exhausted team – particularly Shesterkin, who was unable to control many shots, creating second chances for the Penguins.
But the Rangers found their rhythm after the Penguins were called for a minute’s penalty into the second period. The Rangers had the fourth best power play during the regular season, but they had only one man-advantage opportunity on Tuesday.
“It was about time” the Penguins were called for a penalty, Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said after the game.
With seconds left on the penalty spot, Strome tipped in a shot that Panarin fired toward the net. That seemed to energize the Rangers. About 12 minutes into the second period, Chris Kreider, who scored 52 goals during the regular season, redirected a shot by Frank Vatrano into the net.
But Crosby showed again why he remains one of the best players in the game. With 90 seconds left in the period, he carried the puck from deep in the Penguins ‘defensive zone to the Rangers’ end of the ice, much of it with Rangers defenseman Justin Braun in close pursuit. Crosby passed the puck to Bryan Rust, who shot; Crosby scooped up the rebound and put it in the net.
“Overall, we contained him a little bit, but he’s a great player,” Gallant said of his team’s defense against Crosby, who had a goal and an assist.
The Rangers put the game away eight minutes into the third period, when Panarin skated behind the Penguins’ net and tossed the puck into the goal crease, where it hit the Penguins defenseman Mike Matheson’s skate and bounced into the net.
Panarin said he was trying to pass the puck to defenseman Jacob Trouba.
Less than two minutes later, Vatrano raced down the right, eluding Matheson, and shot the puck over the right shoulder of Domingue for a 5-2 lead.
Domingue was the hero for the Penguins on Tuesday, entering the game in the second overtime and stopping all 17 shots he faced. On Thursday, making his first start in the playoffs, he was unable to hold back the faster Rangers.