PITTSBURGH — The New York Rangers' third line of Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot was so good Friday night that it found a way to get two goals in overtime.
Brassard scored 3:06 into overtime, but officials originally ruled the top-shelf snipe as no-goal. Pouliot made sure it wouldn't matter, as he scored a goal of his own about five seconds later.
Video review showed Brassard's original shot did in fact hit the back corner inside the net and quickly bounced out, which unofficially gave him a game-winning goal and assist in the Rangers' 3-2 victory against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Consol Energy Center in Game 1 of their conference semifinal series.
It was the unit's second goal of the game (Pouliot scored in the first period), as the line packed the biggest punch against a star-studded Penguins front line that was mostly held in check.
"Since Christmas, they've probably been our most consistent line," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "They've got real good chemistry. They read off each other and support one another really well. Again, tonight, they were good with the puck, strong on the forecheck and they scored two in overtime."
While the Rangers received contributions from their depth, the Penguins' stars left a lot to be desired.
Sidney Crosby was held scoreless and was a minus-three, a number that reflects his lack of dominance at even strength in Game 1. He finished the game at a minus-one in terms of five-on-five shot attempts and won only 32 percent (six of 19) faceoffs. On the winning goal, Crosby vacated the front of the net and allowed Brassard an unfettered look at the net.
Crosby was also out of position on Pouliot's fictional goal, but out of position nonetheless.
Evgeni Malkin was far more dangerous, as he helped set up James Neal's goal that tied the score at 2-2 in the second period. Malkin drove to the net and distracted Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist—and by distracted, I mean hit him in the catching glove with his stick—to help the puck sneak across the blue line.
At five-on-five, Malkin was among the Penguins' top forwards, along with linemates Neal and Jussi Jokinen. Malkin had a Corsi relative of plus-20.4 percent, as he was on the ice for 19 shots attempts for and only nine against.
The Penguins' power play, which was ranked first in the NHL in the regular season and scored at a 20 percent clip against the Columbus Blue Jackets, went 0-of-4 against the Rangers in Game 1.
Each team's top two lines played each other to a virtual draw, but it was the depth of the Rangers that got the best of the Penguins' stars.
"I think that really helps our game; we can roll our lines and we don't have to overuse guys," Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi said. "All the lines are a threat. All the 'D' can play. We're lucky to have such a deep team right now and that's going to go a long way in the playoffs with hopefully a long playoff run."
The Rangers' depth served them well in three areas Friday: It helped them score the winner in overtime, it eased the burden of playing a fourth game in six nights and it allowed Vigneault more flexibility in his defensive matchups with Malkin and Crosby.
|Crosby/Malkin/Kunitz vs. Zuccarello/Pouliot/Brassard, Game 1|
Girardi and Ryan McDonagh are the shutdown pairing, the duo that almost always draws the opponent's top line. While they saw their fair share of work against Crosby's line, they also squared off against Malkin's line at times too.
But in terms of ice time, Girardi and McDonagh weren't the horses—Marc Staal (26:03) and Anton Stralman (22:59) combined for more ice time than the top defensive unit. Vigneault proved Friday that he has two defense pairs he doesn't mind matching against anyone, whether it's Crosby or Malkin.
"In Marc's case, he's got one of the best sticks in the league as far as taking space and time away and putting stick on puck," Vigneault said. "He did a good job of gapping up against a player (Crosby) that if you give him any space and time, you're going to be in trouble. Him and (Stralman) found a way to complement one another real well defensively in getting the puck out of our end.
"It means that we've got two pretty good duos there that we're not afraid to match up against any lines. It makes it easier on the road to get the matchups you're looking for."
This game represents what to expect in this series—a tightly fought battle between two teams that don't have much separating them. The Rangers dominated the first period, the Penguins controlled the second period and the third period and overtime were split down the middle. Lundqvist was fantastic (34 saves) and Marc-Andre Fleury (24 saves) had his moments when the score was 2-2, although Brassard's first-period goal was one he should've stopped.
None of that should change all that much in Game 2 on Sunday or beyond. If Crosby and Malkin can get unleashed and Fleury can avoid the cringe-worthy goal against (a big "if," to be sure), this series will likely be 1-1 when it heads to Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Monday.
But if this series continues to be a battle of depth vs. stars, the Rangers will find themselves in Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in three years.
Dave Lozo covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @DaveLozo.
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