PITTSBURGH — Sidney Crosby did not play, the Penguins had their third-string goaltender back in net, Rickard Rakell and Brian Dumoulin remained sidelined and then Brian Boyle left the game for good early in the first period.
But do you know what? There will be no asterisk attached to this 5-3 Game 6 victory the Rangers achieved after overcoming a 2-0 first-period deficit. There will be no asterisk attached to Game 7 of this first-round series, which will be contested at the Garden on Sunday.
The Blueshirts earned this one just as they earned the Game 5 victory at home on Wednesday, also after climbing out of a 2-0 hole following Crosby’s exit from the match midway through the second period in the wake of Jacob Trouba’s endlessly dissected hit.
Of course, the absence of Crosby — who was playing at his highest level in perhaps more than a decade — has had a profound effect on the direction of this series. But it’s not as if the Rangers were handed anything.
On the contrary, the Rangers were in the position where they needed to take advantage of this development in the way they had not been able to take advantage of facing Louis Domingue in nets.
First, the second half of Game 5 and then the entirety of Game 6, these were moments of truth for the playoff-untested Rangers. These were also the moments of truth for the Mika Zibanejad-Chris Kreider power connection, which had been dominated in their matchup against the Crosby-Jake Guentzel-Bryan Rust trio.
But freed, and freed at last from that assignment, Zibanejad and Kreider each turned in compelling efforts, both scoring twice (while Zibanejad added two assists), once apiece on the power play and at five-on-five while working with right wing companion Frank Vatrano to get onto the attack.
“There’s not a playoff way to play or a regular-season way to play,” said Kreider, who broke a 3-3 tie with 1:28 with a left-wing drive that zipped past net-front Zibanejad and bounced high off Louis Domingue’s blocker/arm before landing in the net behind the goaltender. “There’s Rangers hockey and that’s all there is.
“We’ve been able to come together as a team through hard times over the course of the year — over the course of the last couple of years. I think it’s been a long time coming for us. Regardless of the situation, I’m proud of the way this team competes.”
Igor Shesterkin responded in a manner worthy of his designation as a finalist for the Hart and Vezina trophies. He kept his composure in the cauldron, and he was able to block out the noise and the chants, even after the Penguins had taken a 2-0 lead at the 15:48 mark of the first period.
“When they say, ‘Igor,’ ” Igor said, “I just say, ‘OK.’ ”
Zibanejad entered the game without a goal in the series and had been a minus-two while his line as a unit had been minus-four, on for only two New York goals. This was not the way No. 93 had imagined his return to the playoffs after a four-year drought.
“I don’t think it’s easy to stay positive through all this, but credit to the teammates around and the people around,” Zibanejad said. “At the end of the day, if the hard work is there it’s going to turn around eventually.
“Playing with the players I play with, I just try to do the right thing day in and day out and try to work hard.”
Zibanejad in Game 6 was a throwback to the one who scored five goals in a March 2020 game against the Capitals. He was in command, ripping home a power-play one-timer from the high slot to cut the margin to 2-1 early in the second period after initiating the sequence with a clean right circle faceoff win. He blasted another one-timer past Domingue from way above the left circle to tie it just 1:16 later.
“Even when the puck’s not going in for him, he still does so many things that are underappreciated. It’s insane,” Kreider said. “I think the playoffs can reveal who you are and the kind of character you have.
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“For him to stay with his game, and continue to work and continue to work, he’s been a huge, huge leader for us all year. He’s been an absolute horse. He’s been our engine.”
Unencumbered, Zibanejad was unleashed, zipping in on one breakaway that hit the post before zooming in on another breakaway off the greatest home run pass I have ever seen from a goaltender, Shesterkin ranging to the corner to his right to unleash a 120-foot tape-to-taper that Zibanejad accepted in stride at the Pittsburgh line. Domingue made the save, but Kreider slammed home the rebound.
Butch and Sundance.
Mika and Kreids.
“A lot of credit goes to this guy right here, too,” Zibanejad said of Kreider, gesturing toward the winger who was by his side at the postgame podium. “I’ve been playing with him for six years, we’ve kind of been helping each other out through all types of times.
“It’s just, trust yourself, work hard and go from there.”
Trust this: Game 7, Sunday. Game 7, at the Garden.
No asterisk required.
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