NEW YORK — There was a brief moment when the New York Rangers' playoff hopes seemed as though they were on life support Thursday night at Madison Square Garden. The Rangers were only a few minutes away from evening up their first-round playoff series with a 5-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins when Jeff Carter clipped Igor Shesterkin and upended the home team's star goalie.
Shesterkin lay prone for several seconds, looking to be in pain as a melee ensued behind him. This postseason already features an All-Star cast of injured goalies: The Nashville Predators' Juuse Saros, Carolina Hurricanes' Frederik Andersen and Penguins' own No. 1 netminder Tristan Jarry have all been unable to dress in the playoffs. The Hurricanes and Penguins are down to their third-string guys, with Louis Domingue opposing Shesterkin on the other side of the ice.
Jeff Carter collides with Igor Shesterkin and was given a goaltender interference and a roughing penalty on the play. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/StanleyCup?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#StanleyCup</a> <a href="https://t.co/bujqq5Ehll">pic.twitter.com/bujqq5Ehll</a>
But then Shesterkin popped back up and stayed in the game to play the final 2:04.
Did Carter take a cheap shot by running into the goalie? Did Shesterkin get in his lane? And did the goalie flop like former Sacramento Kings great Vlade Divac?
"I feel great," Shesterkin said after the game. "I just fell pretty poorly, landed poorly."
It was all par for the course in what has been an increasingly tense series between two Metropolitan Division rivals.
Game 1 featured a disallowed goal after Kaapo Kakko got tangled up with Casey DeSmith before setting up Filip Chytil, who finished into the open net. Brian Dumoulin had made contact with Kakko from behind right before Kakko collided with DeSmith, but the officials still ruled that it was goalie interference.
Many felt the call robbed a young player of a signature moment. Rangers fans were all but wearing tinfoil hats when Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said the club was a perfect 8-for-8 in challenge calls on the season.
To be clear, that's not a bias toward the Penguins as much as it is an excellent video review team. Sullivan commended his replay personnel for understanding the criteria of goalie interference. Knowing the rule book can be advantageous and it was in this case, as the officials in the situation room in Toronto determined that Kakko did not try to avoid contact with DeSmith.
Fans absolutely have a right to be frustrated with the inconsistency in how goalie interference is determined, but the rule is clear: The skater must attempt to avoid contact with the goaltender.
And for what it's worth, Carter was also slapped with a goalie interference penalty for the collision with Shesterkin for the same reason.
"I wasn't too happy, obviously. In a game like that, there is no reason for it," Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. "I was disappointed with him going after him a little bit like that. But Carter is a good, honest player there, you know? It just didn't look good to me."
The Penguins, however, downplayed the hit. Carter is a 37-year-old veteran who won two Stanley Cups with the Los Angeles Kings and played in a Cup Final with the Flyers. He knows the limits and knows the rules.
"I think it was just hockey," coach Mike Sullivan said. "I don't think there was any intent there, by any stretch."
The rules can be tough to follow when the officiating is more about game management than going by the book. The Rangers were frustrated with a lack of power-play opportunities coming into this game, and a cross-check from Patrik Nemeth 3:36 into the game and a delay-of-game call for a puck over the glass by Ryan Strome later in the period gave the Penguins two power plays, bringing their total to six in a row going back to Game 1.
The cross-check, while soft, was a boneheaded move by Nemeth, and there isn't anything anyone can do about the puck over the glass. Many have called for that rule to be removed, but it's a futile argument at the moment.
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Patrik Nemeth 2-mins for cross checking Marcus Pettersson<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/Penguins?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#Penguins</a> 0 <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NYR?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NYR</a> 0 P1 <a href="https://t.co/CshbXPQfyV">pic.twitter.com/CshbXPQfyV</a>
But this is the NHL. It's quite possibly the only league that tries to manage games with an equal number of penalties for each team, and the power-play opportunity did come 1:05 into the second period.
When it finally came, the vaunted Rangers power play did what it does best by running it through Adam Fox. Ryan Strome got a stick on Fox's point shot and tipped it past Domingue. Another power play in the second period generated enough momentum that the Rangers were able to score in similar fashion with Chris Kreider getting a stick on a Frank Vatrano shot.
"If you go back to last game, I thought we should have gotten more chances," Gallant said of his team's lack of power plays. "It didn't happen, and it was 4-1 last game, and tonight it didn't start off real good either. We were disappointed. But then all of the sudden they started taking some penalties and we got a chance. Overall, it's a tough job of the officials. Guys are playing very competitive.
"Right off the bat, I thought they should have had a penalty for tripping about two or three shifts in. It wasn't called, and then they get the next two power plays and you're saying, 'Here we go again.'"
This game also featured a vintage Sidney Crosby goal, but it's become clear that special teams and goaltending will be how the rest of the series is determined.
In the end, the clock struck midnight on Domingue's Cinderella story. The veteran backup who made the club's AHL roster out of training camp and came in to save the day in triple overtime on Tuesday made only 35 saves on 40 shots. Some were good, some were even great, but he wasn't able to bail the Penguins out when needed in the same way Shesterkin was.
It's unlikely that Jarry will see any action during this series since he has not been on the ice this week. DeSmith is day-to-day. Both of these teams are banged up right now and missing key pieces, with the Rangers without forward Barclay Goodrow and top-pairing defenseman Ryan Lindgren, and the Penguins down Dumoulin, Rickard Rakell and Jason Zucker. Some of those injuries can be attributed to the physicality of these first two games (Zucker has been out since April 26).
Those blistering hits are only going to intensify as the series continues.
"It’s just hockey," Penguins forward Danton Heinen said. "I’ll leave it at that."