PITTSBURGH -- In the bigger picture, and moving forward from here, this is not how the Rangers want to end a season. They aim for more than 82 games, to play beyond this. But when the Rangers woke up on Saturday morning knowing their season would be wrapping up that evening and determined to hold nothing back in the finale of their 2018-19 campaign, this became a night on which the Rangers could not have asked for more.
It was a night that was emblematic of their season in so many ways: Twice they fell behind, and twice they fought back. They battled their way to a third-period lead, only to have to regroup after seeing it slip away.
But the final portrait of the 2018-19 season wound up being a red-white-and-blue mob scene in the corner of a rival's home rink. At the center of it was Ryan Strome, whose overtime strike catapulted the Rangers to a 4-3 victory over the Pittsburgh Penguins on Saturday night and allowed them to end their season on the highest note they could aim for.
It was a season that has been all about growth on Broadway, and oftentimes the growing pains that go along with that. It ended with smiles everywhere around the Rangers' room.
"As tough as the season has been - disappointing that we finish with no playoffs - this game kind of goes to describe our season: We fight every night. We don't give up," Mika Zibanejad told NYRangers.com afterward. "Against a good team, away, we played the night before - it wasn't pretty, but we battled. We worked for each other. And we got the win."
Zibanejad had just played in his 82nd game of the season, the only Ranger not to miss a game in a season he spent putting up career numbers and turning heads around the National Hockey League. The Rangers' MVP finished with his first 30-goal campaign, to go along with 44 assists and 74 points - team highs and career bests all. Zibanejad turns just 26 years old on April 18.
The Pens managed to hold him off the scoresheet in the finale, and so several of his teammates got in line to step up. At the head of the line was Strome: The sixth-year forward has played 421 games in the NHL, but he hadn't scored an overtime winner until March 23 of this year in his hometown of Toronto. So Saturday's goal suddenly was his second in nine games in the 3-on-3, which for most of the season had been a source of monumental frustration to the Rangers.
Video: NYR@PIT: Strome snipes top corner for overtime winner
"You could say that we persevered," David Quinn said. "We had a lead, we gave one up late, and we fought back and won the game. I think our season might be reflected in this game in a nutshell."
The head coach added: "I'm just proud of the way this ended."
Brady Skjei and Vlad Namestnikov also scored for the Rangers, 1:16 apart in the third period, Skjei's goal tying the score and Namestnikov's shorthanded tally giving the Rangers their late lead. And Brendan Smith, who played more as a forward this season than at any time in his professional career, scored a goal-scorer's goal in the first period, an unassisted strike that put the Rangers on the board.
Video: NYR@PIT: Skjei pots wrister on rush to tie game
And then there was Alexandar Georgiev, who finished out his rookie season earning points in five of his last six starts, and wins in four of them. He stopped 36 shots in this one, the ninth time in his 30 starts this season that he had 36 or more saves.
Overall, dating to last Friday's Garden win over St. Louis, Georgiev stopped 142 of the final 147 shots that came his way.
"Everyone gave our all-out today, battled, played with the heart, passion. … Did a hell of a job," Georgiev said. "I'm very proud. Everybody battled so hard."
Sidney Crosby and Jake Guentzel each got one past him, with assists on each other's goals - Crosby got his 100th point this season, and Guentzel his 40th goal - and Nick Bjugstad also scored for the Penguins. But the Rangers got four pucks past Matt Murray on 30 shots to beat the Penguins goaltender for the first time in 10 tries in the regular season and playoffs.
When it all shook out on Saturday night, the Rangers knew where they stood heading into Tuesday's NHL Draft Lottery: They have the sixth-best chance, at 7.5 percent, of snagging the No. 1 pick in June's Entry Draft. Meanwhile, by earning a point for reaching overtime, the Penguins settled into the No. 3 spot in the Metropolitan Division and will begin their playoffs on Long Island later this week.
That's the kind of subject matter that going forward Quinn wants to be discussing at this time of year, but for this night, Quinn said he addressed his team afterward and "I just thanked them for their effort," the coach said. "This has been a great group to coach. We want to be playing past this point next year. But they gave it their all."
They were behind 6:36 into this one when Guentzel and Crosby were clinical on a 2-on-1, but Smith answered back six minutes after that, stepping in front of Garrett Wilson's pass through the middle of the ice and never breaking stride as he snapped one over Murray from the left circle. It was Smith's third point in the season's final four games, and his 21st goal in a career almost exclusively manning blue lines - the first of those 21 goals that came unassisted.
"It's good to see him get rewarded for all his hard work," Quinn said. "That was a heck of a goal - that was a big-time goal."
That tie carried into second intermission, and once it got that far, the game's importance was never bigger for the Penguins: Carolina was winning its game in Philadelphia, a result that would have knocked the Penguins down to the Wild Card had the Rangers won regulation time.
And so when the Penguins made their push in the third, the Rangers - true to 2018-19 form - simply would not go away. Bjugstad cleaned up a fortuitous bounce at the net to put the home side back in front just 2:28 into the period, but Skjei evened it again with 7:26 to play off a feed from Kevin Shattenkirk - coming just moments after Shattenkirk had put one off Murray's goalpost.
Video: NYR@PIT: Namestnikov nets backhander for SHG
And just 76 seconds after No. 76 had scored, and with the Penguins on a power play, Neal Pionk beat Evgeni Malkin to a puck at the Pittsburgh line to poke it over to Namestnikov for a partial breakaway; Namestnikov had his stick checked as he shot, but what he did get off ate Murray up.
"We've had a lot of people mention this group and how hard they work, and it feels good that we do have that work ethic," Quinn said. "Rarely did we take a night off. And that's a testament to every guy in that locker room."
They had to work extra on this night after Guentzel found a puck in a forest of skates with 2:35 left. But in the 3-on-3 overtime, Strome went for a little free skate in front of the Ranger bench as his teammates were changing, then went to the attack. Once he hit the left dot he fired, whistling his shot past Murray's ear and in, his 19th goal of the season and 18th as a Ranger.
With that, the Rangers headed back for New York for Sunday's start of exit interviews and the business of adjourning a season. One victory won't change how that business is conducted, but it gave a team at the end of a trying season a chance to have a thoroughly good feeling going home.
"I'm just proud of the guys in here, the work ethic and the effort guys have given night in and night out. It's something that I'm most happy about, and something I'm looking forward to," Zibanejad said. "It gives this team the hope that we feel in here, how we're working, we don't quit, we showed that again. It was a good way to end the season.
"I'm just really proud of this team," Zibanejad said, "and I'm excited for the future."