PITTSBURGH – Hornqvist scored three goals, one on the power play and one into an empty net, and provided a beautiful outlet pass to set up a Sidney Crosby breakaway top shelf goal. His scoring provided the difference for the Penguins, who were ousted by this Rangers team in each of the past two postseasons.
“It’s hard not to love that guy,” Penguins head coach Mike Sullivan said. “[Hornqvist] goes to the net, he plays in the battle areas, so for him to get rewarded is great.”
And that is all anybody really said about Patric Hornqvist or anybody else in the locker room that wasn’t named Jeff Zatkoff. With Marc-Andre Fleury and Matt Murray on the shelf with head injuries, Zatkoff got the call to start a playoff game for the first time in his career.
“He was unbelievable,” defenseman Trevor Daley said. “He’s been a trooper for the last couple months here … to see him have that game is really special.”
The narrative was supposed to be Pittsburgh’s run-and-gun offense versus New York’s stout defense, but the Rangers flipped the script. The Rangers set out to test Zatkoff and earned a 12 to 3 shots advantage in the early going.
But as the Penguins struggled to gain their footing in the first period, Zatkoff stood tall and kept his team in the game.
“It’s not an easy situation to come into,” Crosby said. “We got off to a slow start and he made some big saves. A great game from him and it allowed us to kind of get comfortable out there and get our game back.”
Zatkoff stopped 35 of the Rangers’ 37 shots. The Penguins goalie made three crucial saves, two in quick secession, as the Penguins killed Daley’s second-period tripping penalty. Minutes later, Zatkoff showed up again and stuffed Rangers winger Viktor Stalberg twice on a 3-on-1.
“He was probably our best player,” Hornqvist said. “In the first 10 or 15 minutes, he makes three or four really good saves. If they go up 1-0 there, it’s probably a different game.”
While Hornqvist, Zatkoff, and Crosby, who finished with a goal and two assists, may grab most of this evening’s hometown hockey headlines, the outcome could have been different if it wasn’t for the Penguins penalty kill.
The Penguins blocked 22 shots on the evening and none were more important than two third-period blocks, one by Brian Dumoulin and one by Ben Lovejoy, which disrupted primo Rangers scoring chances.
“On those penalty kills, when you’re in front of the net it’s a jungle,” Lovejoy said. “You’re doing anything you can to get a stick, a foot, a face on the puck this time of year.”
Rangers forward Derek Stepan scored two goals, the first of which represented Pittsburgh’s lone penalty kill blunder. Stepan scored on a 5-on-3 to cut Pittsburgh’s lead to 2-1 in the second period, but the Penguins bounced back shortly afterward when Nick Bonino snuck behind the Rangers defense and fed Tom Kuhnhackl for an easy short-handed goal.
In the locker room, the optimism was obvious. A hat trick, a stunning showing by a third-string goalie, and a gutty defensive performance will have that effect on a team. But the Penguins journey through the playoffs in just beginning and they are already looking forward to tomorrow.
“It’s just one game,” Daley said. “It’s a best of seven series and now we need to win three more.”
New York’s star goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist, suffered an eye injury when teammate Marc Staal’s stick got caught in the goalie’s mask. Lundqvist finished the first period, and allowed Hornqvist’s first goal, but did not return after the first intermission.
The Penguins will again host the Rangers on Saturday afternoon at 3:00.