For what seemed like an eternity to start the 3-on-3 overtime, all the Rangers were trying to do, all they could hope to do, was survive. Once they finally did, the kids came on and immediately went in for the kill.
The kids in this instance, on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden, were Kaapo Kakko and Adam Fox, two of the four rookies in the Rangers' lineup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the two on this night who put on a show in the first period but saved their best for the encore. Kakko put a poke onto Fox's sly feed off a rush 2:24 into overtime, and the Rangers beat Pittsburgh, 3-2, in a game that featured no Mika Zibanejad for the Blueshirts and no Sidney Crosby for the Pens.
In their absences, Kakko and Fox claimed the limelight. Each of them scored in the opening frame to build up a two-goal lead, off of sweet setups from Artemi Panarin -- whose point streak reached nine games -- and Brendan Lemieux. And after the Penguins had climbed back to even terms in the second period, the two rookies teamed up to end it.
"Great pass by Foxy. It was easy for me," said Kakko, following the first multi-goal game of his young NHL career, which included his first game-winner. "It's always so much fun, overtime. I think everybody likes it."
Well, hold on now -- maybe not everybody, at least not if you asked three players in particular in that victorious home dressing room in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's game. Panarin, Chris Kreider and Tony DeAngelo started the five-minute 3-on-3 period and wound up swallowing close to half of it in one bite. After their own initial chance came up empty and possession went over to Pittsburgh, that Ranger trio found themselves marooned in their defensive zone as the game clock ticked under three minutes and their shift length climbed above two. All three were on empty long before it was over, and for some time afterward, too.
"I wanted to wheel out three oxygen tanks for all three of them, but I don't think they would allow me to do that," David Quinn said afterward. "We hung on. We get some fresh bodies out there and then we're able to counter. And just a heck of a play by Fox to Kaapo."
Once a Penguin pass mercifully went astray back in the Pittsburgh end, the three Rangers skated on fumes to their bench, and Fox, Kakko and Pavel Buchnevich came on. Fox took command.
"It's a great job by that first three to weather that and compete in the D zone," Fox said. "We got out there a little fresher and were able to make a play."
First, though, Fox made a nick-of-time poke check to thwart a net-driving Evgeni Malkin; he then started the counter with Kakko riding shotgun, cut inside once he hit the left circle with Kakko continuing to the net, then slid a no-look pass back against the grain. All Kakko had to do was poke it on target.
"I saw him coming behind me and thought about dropping it," Fox said, "but then they kind of let me take the middle. So then I saw him on the backdoor. Nice of him to put that in."
Even nicer for the Rangers, who earned points for the fourth straight game (3-0-1), and improved to 5-1-1 since Zibanejad left the lineup with an upper-body injury. Over those seven games, Kakko, the Rangers' 18-year-old rookie, has stepped in with five goals, while the 21-year-old Fox has points in six of them, including the last five games in a row. This was Fox's first multi-point night.
"Foxy's been playing like that all year. And Kaapo gets better every single day," said Kreider.
"There's just a whole new level of swagger to him that I hadn't seen since he got here, and not only on the ice but off the ice," Quinn said of Kakko. "There's a comfort level I think he's attaining and you can see it in his face."
In all, eight of the last 10 goals scored by the Rangers have come from a player 21 years old or younger. Which is not to take away from what a couple of 23-year-olds contributed on Tuesday: 30 saves, including 13 in the third period and overtime, from Alexandar Georgiev, and the pinpoint pass between the blue lines by Lemieux that sprung Kakko for a clinical backhand finish on the game's first goal, 6:42 in.
"He's a smart hockey player, and he made a great read. I saw him humming up-ice and was able to find him," said Lemieux, who has points in four of the last five games. "I'm just happy
for him; you know, he hasn't had it easy. It's a tough learning curve, and being 18 years old and scoring goals like he has already … I'm glad to see him get rewarded. He works really hard, and you don't see that out of a lot of young, really gifted kids."
Fox doubled the Ranger lead just 9.3 seconds before first intermission, when Panarin's pass from the left wing found him moving down the right, and he picked the short-side corner behind Matt Murray (24 saves). Panarin's assist was his 13th point of his nine-game streak, which matches the longest of his career.
But the Penguins -- who in their previous three games had faced deficits of 2-0, 3-0 and 3-0 and wiped away each one -- did it once again on this night, erasing the Ranger advantage with second-period goals from Justin Schultz at 1:13 and Jared McCann at 12:33 -- McCann converting a friendly bounce on a power play to snap a monstrous 0-for-28 funk dating to Oct. 13.
"That's a game that could have gotten away from us," Kreider said.
Never more so than when Kreider and his two teammates were stranded, by no fault of their own, during the long-change overtime period, when the only objective was simply to survive until reinforcements could arrive, until fresh legs could come on, and the kids could take it from there.
"First couple minutes was very hard for us," Kakko said. "But then we got the puck."