The blinding sea of white may very well have been the prettiest picture the Pittsburgh Penguins
have seen since Buffalo’s Ralph Wilson Stadium turned into a snow globe of epic proportions on New Year’s Day for the Winter Classic.
Nearly every one of the 17,132 fans inside Mellon Arena on Friday was wearing white of some sort, with thousands donning the free T-shirts and waving the towels they were handed upon entering the arena for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series against the New York Rangers.
This was most definitely the whiteout Pittsburgh was hoping for — inside an Igloo no less. How ironic. It seemed perfect, almost too perfect, which it was for a while until the Penguins’ big guns came out to play.
Despite letting the Rangers jump out to a three-goal lead within the game’s first 24 minutes, the Penguins found a way to white out their opponent too, with a resounding 5-4 come-from-behind victory to take a 1-0 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 2 is Sunday at 2 p.m. EDT before the series shifts to Madison Square Garden next week.
“That was a great effort,” said Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, whose one-timer from the top of the right circle hit Evgeni Malkin’s shin pad and became the winning goal with 1:41 to play. “We don’t want to put ourselves behind like that, but we didn’t quit. We got some bounces and stayed with it. We did a good job of sticking with it.”
The way the Penguins won the game isn’t much different than how they operate on a regular basis. They’re great at lulling an opponent into feeling pretty good about itself, but just when that confidence gets maybe a bit too high the Penguins strike.
"Three-nothing in the playoffs, you'd like to think it's over, but what are you going to do?" Rangers center Scott Gomez said. "We can't get in a track meet with those guys. It's over, there's nothing you can do about it."
They tend to score in bunches, too, which is what happened in Game 1 — twice.
With the crowd silent after the Rangers’ early burst, Jarkko Ruutu gave the Penguins and their fans some hope with a goal that went in off of Michal Rozsival’s skate at 8:13 of the second period, cutting the deficit to 3-1. Fourteen seconds later, Crosby outmuscled Christian Backman for the puck behind the net and found Pascal Dupuis in the left circle for a blistering one-timer.
Quickly it was 3-2. Disaster averted, for now.
“I thought Ruut’s goal was big,” Crosby said. “Then we came back on the next shift and got another one. We were right back in it with a lot of time left.”
By the five-minute mark of the final period the Penguins had turned a 3-0 deficit into a 4-3 lead.
Marian Hossa scored from the corner when his low shot from the left of Henrik Lundqvist near the goal line appeared to hit Gomez’s skate and went into the net at 4:40. With the whiteout crowd still celebrating, the Penguins stunned the Rangers and took the lead when Malkin broke past defenseman Dan Girardi, drew Fedor Tyutin to him and fed Petr Sykora for a slam dunk just 20 seconds later.
“We have the personnel to do it here,” Sykora said of the quick strikes. “The game is never finished for us. We have enough power to score a lot of goals here. It doesn’t matter if we’re down one, two or three to nothing.”
Gomez quieted the home fans again by scoring the equalizer roughly five minutes later, but a fortunate power-play opportunity gave Crosby and the Penguins the forum to strike yet again.
Martin Straka was called for interference against Crosby in the neutral zone with 3:20 remaining in the third period. More than a minute into the power play, the Penguins settled the puck in the zone and went to work.
Ryan Whitney, standing at the top of the zone, received a pass back from Kris Letang and quickly shuffled the puck off to his right where Crosby was positioned for a one-timer. On cue, Crosby ripped it and the puck ricocheted into the net off Malkin.
The goal was reviewed to see if Malkin had made a distinct kicking motion to direct the puck into the net, but the evidence was inconclusive as it was hard to tell if the winning goal went in off of his stick shaft or shin pad.
It was later determined to be his knee — but either way, there was bedlam.
The goal sent waves through the sea of white. They were no doubt celebrating outside, too, where the Penguins set up a giant television and encouraged fans to come for a twilight picnic and viewing party outside of Gate Three.
Cameras from VERSUS, which televised the game nationally in the United States, caught many fans outside going bonkers. One even ripped his shirt off. Inside it was no different — especially on the Penguins bench, where it was complete chaos as the young team celebrated its remarkable feat.
The Rangers had one last chance, but Jagr’s shot hit the goal post with 10 seconds left.
It’s been 16 years since the Penguins could celebrate a playoff comeback like this. They did it with Jagr, hero turned villain in this town, on their side in Game 1 of the 1992 Stanley Cup Final against Chicago when, after trailing 3-0, they rallied for a 5-4 win.
“It’s great and I just hope they’ll do it again next game,” Dupuis said of the whiteout and the entire atmosphere inside and outside the arena. “We won tonight, so they have to do it.”
There was, however, plenty of talk about how the power-play came about.
“I saw (Marian Hossa) block a shot and was trying to basically catch up to him and I ended up falling,” Crosby said. “I’m not sure what I tripped over, a skate or his stick. I think he was just trying to get back and get position on me.”
Rangers coach Tom Renney, who remarked before the series began about how he feels Crosby sometimes embellishes to draw penalties, disagreed with the call.
“Draw your own conclusion,” Renney stated after brushing aside the initial question minutes earlier.
Penguins coach Michel Therrien wasn’t surprised that Crosby drew the penalty.
“The reason why is because of his speed,” the coach said. “He is so tough to contain and there are times when players have no choice but to hook him.”
Whether this was one of those times is irrelevant now. The Penguins took Game 1 with character and resolve. The Rangers have to answer Sunday or face the prospect of going home empty-handed.
“Pittsburgh isn’t where they’re at because they’re a poor team and don’t know how to come back,” Renney said. “We were certainly aware of that, almost to a fault.”