Pittsburgh Penguins' Patric Hornqvist, left, celebrates his goal with teammate Conor Sheary (43) during the first period of a first-round NHL playoff hockey game against the New York Rangers in Pittsburgh, Wednesday, April 13, 2016. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)
Going into their first round playoff series, the New York Rangers had two decided advantages over the Pittsburgh Penguins. One of them was in goal and the other was that Sidney Crosby hadn’t exactly been a force in the playoffs against the Rangers.
Funny how things go in the playoffs. It took almost no time for things to be turned on their ear and for those two advantages for the Rangers to be extinguished by the Penguins. Jeff Zatkoff, a 28-year-old minor leaguer who has a 3-8-0 record and a 4.26 goals-against average in the American League playoffs, is the second-last player listed in the NHL Guide and Record Book. And he was probably the last player anyone would have expected to emerge as a hero in Game 1 of the NHL playoffs.
But Zatkoff did exactly that in Pittsburgh’s convincing 5-2 win in Game 1 of the series, but he had a lot of help. Crosby was brilliant, with three points, as was Patric Hornqvist, who recorded a hat trick and an assist. In one of those possible series-turning events, the Rangers’ ‘qvist’, goalie Henrik Lundqvist, left the game after giving up one goal and playing one period. After taking a Marc Staal stick to his eye late in the first period, Lundqvist had some eye drops applied, allowed a goal and was not seen again on the evening.
Antti Raanta relieved him and was quite good, actually. To be sure, goaltending was not the reason why the Rangers lost this game. They lost Game 1 of the series because they were absolutely routed in the team speed department. GM Jim Rutherford’s decision to fire Mike Johnston and replace him with Mike Sullivan was a stroke of genius, with Sullivan allowing the Penguins to exploit their speed and talent, two aspects of their game that were on full display in Game 1. You give up 37 shots to this team and constantly turn the puck over at both bluelines at your own peril. With skaters such as Crosby, Conor Sheary, former Ranger Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel in the lineup, the Penguins feast on teams that cough up the puck and don’t have the speed to adjust to their transition game. You give them room to work and they will make you pay. The three even-strength or shorthanded goals the Penguins scored were as the result of their quick-strike mentality.
Going into Game 2, there are a couple of questions and they surround on goaltending for both teams. How badly hurt is Lundqvist? Is the damage to his eye temporary or will it keep him out for Saturday’s game? The fact the Rangers have two days off between games could very well be a advantage for them on a couple of fronts. First, it will give them another day to allow Lundqvist to heal. Second, it will give them another day to make some of the adjustments they desperately need if they want to get back into this series. The Rangers have got to be far better with the puck in both ends than they have been because they don’t have the Penguins’ team speed. And they have to tighten up defensively or this is going to be a very short series.
For the Penguins, the uncertainty still centers on the goaltending position. Will Marc-Andre Fleury be ready to go in Game 2? Even if he is, do the Penguins stick with Zatkoff and hope he continues to carry a hot hand? And if they do have to go with Zatkoff in either the short- or long-term, the Penguins know they still have a 28-year-old minor league goalie in their crease. Short bursts by players such as Zatkoff are common, but the reason why players remain in the minors until their late 20’s is they don’t have the ability/mental makeup to sustain that level of play for a considerable period of time, which is precisely why they’re in the minors in the first place.
If Fleury, and/or Matt Murray, can return to the lineup sooner rather than later, they might have already received all they’ll need from Zatkoff. For the Rangers to not be able to pierce the armor of the Penguins’ No. 3 goalie is undoubtedly a setback for them and a boon for the Penguins. The Rangers, on the other hand, have to have their goaltender back, and play infinitely better, if they have any designs on getting back into this series.