Chris Kreider power-play goals.
Okay, so Saturday night’s 5-2 Rangers victory to tie the series at 3-3 and force Game 7 was a culmination of much more than Kreider’s uncanny ability to cash in with the man advantage, but that’s a fitting place to start considering how the win when down.
After putting up five goals in each of their first two wins to open this first-round series the Rangers managed just three in their three losses combined, and in Game 5 were shutout altogether.
Despite hitting the ice looking infinitely more energized than they did the last three games, it looked like their scoring woes might continue in a must-win Game 6. The Devils were effective in shutting down the neutral zone for much of the first period, following the same recipe they had in their trio of victories, while Schmid was shutting the door.
But after Devils forward Curtis Lazar gave New Jersey an early lead midway through the first period, a tripping penalty against Dawson Mercer opened a window of opportunity and the Rangers struck.
From his usual net-front post-up, Kreider made it a 1-1 game when he deflected a one-timer from Mika Zibanejad with 25 seconds remaining in the frame. It was his fifth power-play marker of the series after he tallied two in each of the first two games, and his sixth goal overall of these playoffs. (He briefly shared the league playoff goal-scoring lead with Edmonton’s Leon Draisaitl and Colorado’s Mikko Rantanen, but the Oilers forward scored his seventh of the post-season later Saturday night to take back the solo lead.)
Kreider’s goal marked the 16th time he’s scored in a potential elimination game, tying former Rangers captain Mark Messier for the most such goals in league history. Should he score a sixth power-play tally Monday night in Game 7, he’ll tie Chris Kontos for the most PP goals in a single series.
That goal also had the Rangers looking a lot more like the team that dominated the Devils 5-1 in both of the series’ first two games.
Though, there were some noticeable differences.
Gallant shakes things up to spark offence
Coming off their worst offensive outing yet in Game 5, it was crystal clear Gerard Gallant needed to make some significant adjustments to his lines and that’s exactly what he did, focusing on his top six in an effort to get his biggest stars moving again.
Gallant bumped Vladimir Tarasenko up to the top line alongside Zibanejad and Kreider, linking Patrick Kane with Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere on the second line.
It worked. That top trio scored the Rangers’ first three goals of the night, with each forward getting on the board. Zibanejad made it 2-1 halfway through the second period, his celebration looking equal parts exuberance and relief thanks to it being his first goal of the series.
In the biggest game of the Rangers’ year, New York’s biggest stars stepped up after failing to show up the last three games, solving Schmid after being unable to piece together any kind of momentum since the rookie netminder stepped into the No. 1 role in Game 3. Kreider had a goal and two assists, Tarasenko and Zibanejad both had a goal and an assist, and lead blue-liner Adam Fox set his team up for success with a pair of helpers, four blocked shots, and five takeaways.
Goaltender Igor Shesterkin, too, showed up in a big way — but he’s been here all series long, never wavering despite his club’s breakdown. The netminder faced 36 shots and saved 34 for a .944 save percentage on the night. His best came during a late-game barrage, a dramatic glove save on Nico Hischier that kept the game 5-2.
He almost had a goal, too, sending the puck sailing down the ice towards the Devils’ empty net in the dying minutes.
Zibanejad déjà vu?
New York’s return to their dominant form has a familiar feel to it… this team is no stranger to rallying back from the brink in Round 1, after all.
Just last year against the Pittsburgh Penguins, New York was down 3-1 and climbed back to win the series. The catalyst? Mika Zibanejad.
Just as he was this year, Zibanejad was shut out of the first five games last spring against Pittsburgh. He broke the barrier in a must-win Game 6, and would end up having three goals in the final two games of the series to help lead New York to Round 2. He was a force after that.
Perhaps a sign of things to come?
Devils can’t recover from early penalties
As much as you can credit Kreider’s first-period power-play goal with launching the Rangers’ offensive efforts, the Devils’ penalty kill was actually very effective Saturday night, killing three of four minor penalties. It was the timing that hurt them, with two penalties in the first frame — including the one that led to Kreider’s goal. Ondrej Palat served two penalties early in the second period, forcing the Devils to lock things down and keep their penalty killers on the ice — and their top scorers off it.
New Jersey ultimately couldn’t recover from those early setbacks, and cannot afford to start Game 7 the same way Monday night.
You can watch Game 7 on Sportsnet and SN NOW Monday at 8 p.m. ET / 5 p.m. PT.