By Will Graves
April 23, 2016
Pittsburgh Penguins' Phil Kessel (81) celebrates his goal with teammate Evgeni Malkin (71) as New York Rangers' Marc Staal (18) skates back to his bench during the first period of Game 5 in a first-round NHL playoff hockey game in Pittsburgh, Saturday, April 23, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
PITTSBURGH (AP) -- The end of two springs' worth of playoff angst for the Pittsburgh Penguins came suddenly, crammed into 14 minutes of pure exhilaration, one highlight-reel sequence piled atop another.
And perhaps it's fitting that Pittsburgh's relentless five-game demolition of the New York Rangers - completed during a raucous 6-3 on Saturday that ushered New York to an early offseason - wasn't sealed by the familiar faces atop the Penguins' star-laden roster but the pieces brought in to help return Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang to their spot among the league's elite.
Conor Sheary. Bryan Rust. Matt Murray. All in their early 20s. All now vital parts of a team that looks every bit a Stanley Cup contender as it prepared to face either Washington or Philadelphia in the conference semifinals.
Rust and Sheary combined for three goals during Pittsburgh's second-period explosion against uncharacteristically shaky Henrik Lundqvist and Murray turned away 38 shots as the Penguins exacted a bit of revenge against the Rangers, who knocked Pittsburgh out of the postseason in 2014 and 2015. The setbacks led to franchise-wide soul searching, including hiring Mike Sullivan to take over for Mike Johnston in mid-December and having general manager Jim Rutherford overhaul the roster with fresh legs unburdened by past failure.
''We are obviously all aware of what's happened in the past,'' said Rust. ''There's guys who obviously weren't there. We wanted to fight harder to make sure that didn't happen like two years ago when the team was up 3-1 and they lost that lead and ended up losing the series. We wanted to make sure that didn't happen.''
Not by a long shot.
Matt Cullen, Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel - who like Sheary and Rust were not on the roster when Pittsburgh bowed out in five meek games against New York last year - also scored for the Penguins to end a miserable and brief postseason for Lundqvist, who stopped just 17 of 23 shots and failed to make it to the third period for the third time in the series.
''The second period, it was feeling of embarrassment to give up that many goals,'' Lundqvist said. ''But also a sense of hopelessness with not being able to come up with the saves and the score being the score in the second period, it was definitely not a good feeling.''
And an odd one for a team that played with remarkable resiliency during a stretch of deep playoff runs. Lundqvist came in 15-4 in his last 19 starts with the Rangers facing elimination. He spent the final 20 minutes of New York's wearing a baseball cap on the bench while backup Antti Raanta played out the string.
''I felt like the last two games here I just didn't have it in me to make a difference,'' Lundqvist said. ''And that's painful, you know? That's my job, to try to make the difference there and help the team.''
Instead, Lundqvist spent the last three games getting outplayed by the 21-year-old Murray, who turned away 85 of the 89 shots he's faced while filling in for injured starter Marc-Andre Fleury, who remains out indefinitely while dealing with a concussion sustained on March 31. Fleury doesn't appear close to returning, something that might have crippled Pittsburgh's momentum months ago but no longer. The Penguins have won each of Murray's last 10 starts.
''I think every time you face adversity and you get through it, it definitely makes you stronger, a stronger person, stronger mentally,'' Murray said. ''Experience is huge for us, especially us young guys.''
Tied at two after the first, the Penguins simply skated by the older, slower and decidedly lethargic Rangers.
Rust gave Pittsburgh the lead for good by tapping in a pretty feed from Trevor Daley at the top of the slot, the defenseman faking a shot before sliding a pass to Rust at the doorstep 5:21 into the second. The 39-year-old Cullen doubled the Penguins' advantage just over four minutes later when Rust's aggressive forechecking took two Rangers off the puck and left it sitting there for Cullen to whip over Lundqvist's glove.
Sheary pushed it to 5-2 when Crosby skated into the New York zone, drew the Rangers' attention then fed it to the streaking Sheary, called for the pass then zipped the puck into the top corner. By the time Rust finished off a 2-on-1 by burying a saucer pass from Malkin to give the Penguins more cushion than Murray would possibly need, the 421st consecutive sellout at Consol Energy Center was giddily chanting ''Hen-rik! Hen-rik!'' at the person most responsible for Pittsburgh's recent anguish.
Now the team that looked lost at Christmas is surging in late-April, emboldened by Sullivan's style that places a premium on pressure and speed, two things the Penguins currently have in abundance.
''I think this series was a good step, we were definitely tested,'' Crosby said. ''This should build some confidence that we can play in those games and create even when it's that tight.''
NOTES: Rick Nash, Dominic Moore and Chris Kreider scored for the Rangers. ... Pittsburgh finished the series 8 of 21 on the power play. The Rangers were 2 of 19 with the man advantage. ... The Rangers scratched Tanner Glass and opted to go with seven defensemen rather than the usual six.