PITTSBURGH — J.T. Miller set up three New York goals in slightly more than four minutes of the second period that unnerved the Pittsburgh Penguins and their backup goaltender and the Rangers tied up the first-round playoff series, winning 4-2 on Saturday.
The Rangers looked nothing like the team that was dominated 5-2 in Game 1 — and Pittsburgh’s Jeff Zatkoff finally looked like a No. 3 goaltender, as Derick Brassard beat him for a goal and assisted on two others.
With the steady Henrik Lundqvist back in net after missing the final two periods — and four Penguins goals — in Game 1 with an injured right eye, the Rangers scored four consecutive goals to seize back home-ice advantage from the rival they eliminated from the postseason the previous two seasons.
Despite Phil Kessel’s first two playoff goals since 2013, the Rangers also ended their four-game losing streak against the Penguins that dated to the regular season and now go back to Madison Square Garden with confidence intact for Game 3 on Tuesday night.
Early on, it looked like a repeat of Game 1, as Pittsburgh outshot the Rangers 17-8 and led 1-0 on Kessel’s first goal. Zatkoff also looked as steady and unshaken as he did while making 35 saves Wednesday as a surprise starter for the injured Marc-Andre Fleury (concussion).
But that all changed in 18 seconds, as the Rangers swung the game, the lead — and, they hope, the series — their way, thanks largely to center Miller’s playmaking and Brassard’s two-way play.
Brassard won a faceoff in the Penguins’ end, allowing Miller to throw a perfectly placed pass to a wide-open Keith Yandle in the left circle for a wrist shot that knuckleballed over Zatkoff’s right shoulder and under the crossbar at 12:38.
The Penguins, who had won 15 of their previous 17, then sat back as Miller made a long-distance breakout pass to their own blue line to Brassard, who got a stride ahead of defenseman Olli Maatta for a wrist shot that eluded Zatkoff only 18 seconds after Yandle scored. The goal was reviewed to determine if Brassard was onside.
All of a sudden, the Rangers were playing exactly like the team that had won seven of their previous eight in the postseason from Pittsburgh in 2014 and 2015.
Lundqvist, looking sharp and not the least bit bothered by the eye injury that forced him out of Game 1, made 29 saves — keeping the Rangers in the lead by stopping Bryan Rust out of the penalty box on a breakaway at 15:37 of the third.
That allowed Mats Zuccarello to make it 3-1 at 16:52 with a nearly unstoppable shot into the corner of the net, after Miller faked a pass to the point only to hit Zuccarello in the right circle. Miller’s three assists in a single playoff period tied a Rangers club record shared with four others, including Jaromir Jagr.
Just 39 seconds into the third period, the Rangers appeared ready to turn it into a rout as Brassard set up Chris Kreider for the fourth New York goal in a span of eight shots. But the Penguins came back five minutes later to make it 4-2 on Kessel’s second goal, on a power play with Evgeni Malkin assisting in his first game since getting injured March 11.
But even Malkin’s return wasn’t enough as the Penguins failed — for the 10th time in their last 11 opportunities — to sweep the first two games of a playoff series that opened on home ice.
NOTES: New York made a significant lineup change for Game 2, sitting down injured D Dan Girardi and dressing 6-foot-5, 220-pound Dylan McIlrath, who became the second Rangers rookie defenseman to make his playoffs debut in as many games. Brady Skjei played 17:08 in Game 1. McIlrath was paired with D Keith Yandle. … The Penguins went 13-2 during C Evgeni Malkin’s second extended injury absence of the season, which ended Saturday. … Malkin was out for five weeks; the initial projection was 6-to-8 weeks. … The last time G Henrik Lundqvist did not start a Rangers playoff game was April 24, 2006. Lundqvist was back in net after missing the final two periods of Game 1 with an injured right eye. … Penguins RW Bryan Rust (undisclosed injury) played after being out since March 29. … Rangers F Mats Zuccarello opened the game on a line with C Derek Stepan, or the same way they ended Game 1. Zuccarello normally plays on a line with C Derick Brassard. … Game 3 will be Tuesday night in Madison Square Garden following another two-day break, but all subsequent games in the series will be every other day. … New York scratched Giradi, D Ryan McDonagh, C Oscar Lindberg and G Magnus Hellberg. Pittsburgh held out D Justin Schultz, D Derrick Pouliot, RW Beau Bennett, C Oskar Sundqvist, G Matt Murray, F Tom Sestito and injured G Marc-Andre Fleury, who missed a second successive start.