Panarin’s OT winner sends Penguins to uncertain summer

What an outstanding finish to an incredible series.

The New York Rangers could have been out of it at points. They fell behind 3-1 in the series and all-important goalie Igor Shesterkin appeared beatable, and was pulled in Games 3 and 4. But it wasn’t the goalie playing poorly, it was the run of quality opportunities were tilted against New York . The Pittsburgh Penguins ended the series with the most high danger chances of any team in Round 1; the Rangers were among the worst at getting them.

But New York never gave up and always had some push back. Facing elimination in Game 5, New York fell behind 2-0 and came through with a 5-3 win anyway. In Game 6, they trailed 2-0 after the first period and won 5-3 again. In Game 7, they trailed 2-1 and then 3-2 after the second period. Needing a star to come through on the biggest stage at Madison Square Garden, Mika Zibanejad tied it with a wicked shot, and Artemi Panarin clinched it in overtime after a pretty quiet game for him up to that point.

Shesterkin was masterful and the underlying MVP once more.

“We’re kinda the cardiac kids at this point,” Chris Kreider told Sportsnet’s Caroline Cameron after the win Sunday. “We definitely had our moments where we weren’t playing the way we wanted to, but we came storming back time and time again. And obviously our goalie was our best player every single game for us.”

It’s a big step for the Rangers, who earned their first series win since the retool from a few years ago and did it in dramatic fashion that will leave an impression going forward. Playing Carolina next, a tough defensive, strong puck control team, will be a challenge for the still-young Rangers.

For the Penguins, it’ll be an off-season of major questions, critical decisions and perhaps the end of an era.

Igor Shesterkin comes up big in Game 7

The Penguins had a number of great opportunities to open the scoring early, and to extend their one-goal leads, but Shesterkin was outstanding time and again.

Right before both of New York’s first two goals, Shesterkin made a whopper of a stop just moments earlier.

This was the bumpiest couple of weeks of Shesterkin’s season, but it was more reflective of the play in front of him than a failing on the goalie’s part. Shesterkin had a heavy lift in Round 1, starting with a 105-minute, 79-save OT loss in Game 1. No goalie faced more shots, more high danger shots, or made more saves in the opening round than Shesterkin, who was even pulled twice along the way.

For the 26-year-old to put that behind him, show up and deliver on brand in Game 7 is a big moment for both him and the Rangers. For Shesterkin, he sets the early tone in his career that he’s a big game player; for the Rangers, it’s the knowledge that your blue-chip goalie can be a game stealer at the most critical times.

A tip of the cap to Tristan Jarry

When the Penguins were eliminated last season, Jarry took most of the blame on the chin with an .888 save percentage performance. His whole 2021-22 season was a bit of redemption as he delivered one of the best years of any goalie in the NHL. But an injury just before the playoffs sidelined him and made goaltending a centrepiece of the story in Pittsburgh again.

Casey DeSmith started well, and then he was injured in Game 1. Louis Domingue had two moments in Games 1 and 4, but really was a third-string goalie hanging on.

With back-to-back losses and facing the prospect of letting a 3-1 series lead slip away, the Pens turned to Jarry in Game 7 for the first time in these playoffs, and one month after his last game.

He answered the bell, too, making a number of large saves of his own to counter Shesterkin before the last one was screened in by him in overtime.

It was pointed out on the broadcast a few times that Jarry appeared a little hobbled and likely still injured. Certainly not 100 percent. When asked about his condition after the game, Jarry paused for a moment and responded “I was able to play.”

“Just being able to play, I was grateful for that. I was grateful that they trusted to put me in for that. And if anything happened I wanted to be in for that. I wanted to give it my best shot.”

The “terrible rule” that stung the Penguins

The refs always have to factor into the narrative somehow.

In this Game 7 the key moment came with just under six minutes left in regulation with the Penguins hanging on to a one-goal lead. New York was on the attack and Alexis Lafreniere got tied up with Marcus Pettersson, whose helmet fell off in the scuffle. The Penguins blueliner, with his team under fire in the defensive end, immediately skated to the bench. By the time his replacement returned, Mika Zibanejad had a glorious opportunity to tie the game and didn’t miss.

By rule, Pettersson had to either retreat to the bench after losing his helmet, or quickly pick it up off the ice and put it back on. Rule 9.6 reads:

“A player on the ice whose helmet comes off during play shall be assessed a minor penalty if he does not exit the playing surface, or retrieve and replace his helmet properly on his head (with or without his chin strap fastened), within a reasonable period of time. It is reasonable if a player who is making a play on the puck or who is in the vicinity of the puck and engaged in the play at the time his helmet comes off, takes the opportunity to complete the play before either exiting the ice or retrieving and replacing his helmet.”

If you think Lafreniere intentionally pulled the helmet off, as Pens coach Mike Sullivan did, you could argue the Rangers should have been given a penalty on the play. It was a critical turning point in the game.

“I think it stinks,” Sullivan said of the rule. “He has to come off. His helmet got pulled off intentionally. But that’s the rule.”

Added Sidney Crosby: “Tonight I think was an example of one game anything can happen and we didn’t get that extra goal there late in the game. And, you know, a terrible rule probably ends up being the difference in the game. ”

Artemi Panarin wasn’t very impactful…until he was

If the Rangers had been eliminated Sunday, it wouldn’t have been surprising to find out about some injury that was hamering Panarin. New York’s superstar just hasn’t been at his usual level. His line was outshot by four, outchanced by four and though Panarin registered six shots on net, he was mostly kept to the outside with them.

But with Panarin on the ice, the Rangers outscored the competition 1-0; the OT winner was the only difference.

As we know, Panarin is a weapon and can strike at any given moment. In the dying minutes of regulation and in the razor’s edge of overtime, legacies are built when the best players find a way through and rise up as the singular difference between a long off-season of second-guessing and regret, and moving on to the second round feeling pretty darn good about your Cup chances.

In this Game 7 it wasn’t Crosby or Evgeni Malkin. It was Panarin who turned his quiet game into a very, very loud finish at MSG.

“He’s the guy, when he was heading into overtime, I said to myself, ‘I know he’s going to score if we score.’ If we get the winning goal, it’s going to be him,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said.

Where do the Penguins go from here?

Crosby will be back, that much we know.

But what about Malkin and Kris Letang? The questions will begin to be asked of the two pending UFAs and long-time core members of the Penguins championship years.

As long as Crosby is around the Penguins won’t be a rebuilding team. Jake Guentzel is signed for another two years, and he actually finished as the highest-scoring player from Round 1 with eight goals in seven games. Jarry played his way back into being a comfortable No. 1, though the team may think about upgrading further down the depth chart. Jeff Carter just re-signed for two years and you don’t give that deal to a 37-year-old if the plan is to scale back.

Even considering all that, here’s the picture: the Penguins have lost their opening-round series in four consecutive years and were just beaten by a team on the way up. They held leads in all three elimination games and lost each one. They have let the prospect cupboard run almost dry and hung tight to their first-round pick at this deadline because of the need to keep an eye on the future.

Some level of change is expected, but how drastic? Malkin’s $9.5 million comes off the books and there’ll be some debate on what an extension should even look like in this situation as he turns 36 in July. Letang’s $7.25 million is also scheduled to come off when free agency opens and though he had one of his better seasons in 2021-22, the defenseman does feel like the more likely of the two to test the waters. Bryan Rust, an important complementary goal scorer in this lineup, is a UFA as well and probably priced out of Pittsburgh.

With Malkin and Letang it could be the end of an era that brought three Stanley Cups to Pittsburgh and 16 playoff appearances. Losing one would leave a huge hole, but new-found cap flexibility to try a different approach. Losing both would alter the franchise in such a way that it’s hard to imagine what the next chapter might be.

“It’s something that we knew was a possibility heading into the playoffs, but it’s not something I’ve tried to think about too much,” Crosby said.

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