Kris Letang knows the Pittsburgh Penguins have the NHL’s oldest team. The 35-year-old defenseman is one of the reasons why.
The Penguins have never missed the playoffs during Letang’s 17-year career. They know what it takes to get there, even if this time around it may have taken a little longer than usual for that postseason push to begin.
It’s well underway now, and Letang is right in the middle of it.
Letang’s blast from the point 1:38 into overtime lifted Pittsburgh to a 3-2 victory over the New York Rangers on Sunday, strengthening his team’s grasp on the first wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference.
Not bad for a team that looked lost after getting blown out at home by Edmonton on Feb. 23. The Penguins are 7-1-1 since.
“I think if you look at our age average, a lot of guys have the experience and they know what to do to turn it on and make sure we get in the postseason and we start getting confident,” Letang said after his third overtime winner of the season. “Everybody has a role and they have to do it the best they can and I think that’s what we’re doing right now.”
Jason Zucker scored for the ninth time in eight games for Pittsburgh and Rickard Rakell added his 23rd. Tristan Jarry made 27 saves as the Penguins improved to 3-0-1 during a five-game homestand.
“I think we’re just playing more of a team game, getting (forward Mikael Granlund and defenseman Dmitry Kulikov at the trade deadline) really sparked our team and it showed us and the organization that we want to win,” Jarry said. “Every game we’re trying to win and every night we’re trying to get two more points.”
Barclay Goodrow picked up his 11th goal of the season for New York and Chris Kreider’s goal midway through the third period tied it. Jaroslav Halak made 32 saves for the Rangers, including a glove save on Alex Nylander to snuff out a 2-on-1 break with less than a minute to go in regulation.
New York is 4-5-2 over its last 11 games to fall off the pace a bit behind Carolina and New Jersey in the race for the Metropolitan Division title.
“We haven’t played well, we admit to that, but we’re still winning hockey games, too,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “Tonight, we still got a point against a real good team over there. We’re battling hard. We have to be better. We know that. I think everybody in that room knows it.”
The NHL’s oldest team looked decidedly fresh despite its third game in less than 72 hours. A day after dominating hapless Philadelphia, the Penguins dictated the pace for much of the first two periods against the Rangers, who were playing their third game in four days, all on the road.
The teams traded goals in the first period even as the Penguins carried play. Zucker’s 24th goal and fourth in his last four games – a long shot from the point that was going wide before being redirected by the skate of New York’s Mika Zibanejad – early in the second seemed to wake the Rangers up.
The intensity ramped up immediately. Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba hit Nylander with a shoulder to the chest at near full speed. The collision evoked memories of a hit by Trouba on Sidney Crosby during last year’s playoffs that forced the Penguins star to miss two games with a concussion in a series Pittsburgh would go on to lose in overtime of Game 7.
The hit and the aftermath seemed to give the Rangers a welcome jolt and New York sprung to life, particularly in the third period.
The Rangers tilted the ice heavily in their favor over the final 20 minutes, and Kreider evened the game at the end of a sequence that began with New York’s Vincent Trocheck hitting Malkin in the back in the Rangers’ zone, leading to a transition that ended with Kreider all alone in the slot, giving him plenty of room to tie it.
The sometimes chippy play could set the table for an interesting week. The Penguins visit Madison Square Garden twice over the next six days.
“There is still a lot of hockey to play and we need the points more than they do,” Jarry said. “So I think we were just a little more desperate tonight and hopefully that continues throughout the week.”
Rangers: Host Washington on Tuesday night.
Penguins: Wrap up their homestand on Tuesday against Montreal.
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