April 16, 2016
New York Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist (30) keeps his eyes on a rebound during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 2 in the first round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 16, 2016. The Rangers won 4-2. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH — There were the Penguins doing whatever they could to annoy Henrik Lundqvist, flinging pucks at him the length of the ice on delayed penalty whistles, even with their own men trapped deep in the New York zone.
There were the Penguins, facing a goaltender with eyes wide open who had eliminated them from the playoffs in 2014 and 2015, doing whatever they could to get under his skin.
And there was the King, doing what he does here in the postseason, where he has allowed a sum of six goals in winning five straight decisions.
“There are times where they’re around you and they let you know that they’re going to be in your face,” Lundqvist told The Post following a typically resolute performance in the Blueshirts’ 4-2 victory Saturday that squared the first-round clash at 1-all. “But you know what? That’s OK with me.
“I enjoy that.”
The Rangers responded to Wednesday’s disappointing 5-2 defeat with a diligent effort on both sides of the puck, creating and winning battles and taking the body at just about every opportunity in this chippy game that turned nasty. They responded by looking as much like themselves as they have since October.
Perhaps most importantly, the Blueshirts stuck with it even as they trailed the Penguins and Goaltender Z — Jeff Zatkoff by any other name, starting again with Marc-Andre Fleury still sidelined — 1-0 more than midway through the match before a three-goal explosion within a span of 4:14 off scores from Keith Yandle, Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello.
“I think our intensity and battle level was much higher,” Marc Staal said. “I thought we were much sharper in the middle of the ice and allowed Hanky to see the puck and make those saves.”
Lundqvist saw the puck just fine three days after the scare he and the entire population of Rangerstown endured when the goaltender was hit around the right eye by Staal’s stick blade late in the first period before leaving when the area around the eye swelled up.
But after seeing an eye specialist Friday, Lundqvist entered Game 2 not only with clear vision but a clear mind.
“The big thing for me was seeing the specialist and finding out there was no damage to the eye,” Lundqvist said. “When I knew there was nothing wrong with the eye, I could push myself.
“There was no excuse for me not to be ready. Whatever is bothering you, you don’t think about it on the ice. I started preparing right after I left the doctor. You want to be out there to make a difference.”
Staal was outstanding in a game-high 25:19 of high stress work, matched for 11:03 at five-on-five against Sidney Crosby and 7:54 against Evgeni Malkin, who returned for his first game since March 11 and skated much of the time on No. 87’s wing. Kevin Klein, paired with Staal most of the way, led the team with eight hits. Brady Skjei responded in a big way to 19:02 of ice.
J.T. Miller, who assisted on all three goals in that second period explosion, continued his climb up the ladder. Brassard, quiet for the series’ first 90 minutes, slipped into his BGB guise (Big-Game Brassard) and keyed the second-period outburst. Viktor Stalberg gave the Penguins a dickens of a time.
But, as it essentially always is in the playoffs in Pittsburgh, it was Lundqvist who made the difference. Was Lundqvist who when called upon made the critical saves, first when it was 2-1 and then when the Penguins attempted to charge back in the third after drawing to within 4-2 at 5:42 on Phil Kessel’s second goal of the match.
“I feel when we’re up by a goal or two, Hanky rises up and takes the challenge,” Staal said. “It seems like we’ve had a lot of games like that in this building.”
Lundqvist’s most critical save was likely the glove stop he made on Bryan Rust’s breakaway with 4:24 remaining in the second to preserve a 2-1 lead when the winger came out of the penalty box and was sprung by Crosby’s home-run feed.
“Every save matters,” Lundqvist said. “For a goalie, you have to tell yourself that every save can turn the game around.”
Now, Lundqvist and his team may have turned the series around after yet another playoff victory in Pittsburgh.
We shall, uh, see.