Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted in 2005.
If you never had heard of Jeff Zatkoff or Matthew Murray a week ago, do not be embarrassed. You are among the vast majority of less than avid hockey fans in North America, and perhaps even in Pittsburgh.
Even casual Rangers fans have heard of them now, for all the wrong reasons.
Those are the two goaltenders who made their playoff debuts for the Penguins in Games 1 and 3 of a first-round series, and enjoyed their experiences immensely.
Zatkoff beat the Rangers in Game 1, 5-2. Then, after Zat koff lost Game 2, enter Murray, who had had a single full practice in the 10 days since he was injured in the regular-season finale against the Flyers.
Oh, and he is only 21, born three weeks before the Rangers last secured the Stanley Cup, in 1994.
Result: a 3-1 loss Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden that gave the Pens a 2-1 series lead and left the Rangers kicking themselves for not making Murray sweat.
The Penguins surely want their starter, Marc Andre-Fleury, to get well soon as he recovers from post-concussion symptoms. But if this keeps up, he can take his time. The Rangers’ offense sputtered all night, totaling 17 shots, only four in the third period. Their lone goal was a shorthanded one, by Rick Nash in the second.
“We kept trying to tell ourselves: If you’ve got a lane, shoot it,” captain Ryan McDonagh said. “I’m sure we’ll look at some things when we watch the game and wish we had put some more pucks on the net, especially since it was his first game in a while. It was a big emphasis.”
The Penguins had much to do with the Rangers’ problems, displaying admirable defensive discipline for a team best known for its offensive skills. That is the biggest reason for their nearly fourth-month-long hot streak.
But the Rangers knew all that coming in. Right?
“The biggest thing I think we need to learn from tonight, more so than anything,” Derek Stepan said, “is that we did a terrible job of getting through the neutral zone and that exactly is the reason why we didn’t get a single look in the whole third period: Because we did such a poor job of coming through the neutral zone.
“They just have four guys in between the red and blue line. It’s got to be a real simple play. It’s got to be the red line and chip it in and go get it. We just kept trying to get through it, and it’s just not going to work.”
It is enough to leave the home team’s goaltender mighty frustrated.
“For some reason it’s hard for us to create chances,” Henrik Lundqvist said. “We were hoping to come home and get the building energized and ourselves energized.”
Lundqvist pointed to Sidney Crosby’s power-play goal with 42 seconds left in the second period as pivotal. It tied the score at 1 entering the third and followed a penalty on Marc Staal for hooking former Ranger Carl Hagelin.
“I do not agree with that call,” Lundqvist said. “But it’s going to happen. It’s a fast game. I just thought it was a battle for the puck.”
Lundqvist was appearing in his 114th playoff game. So, if you’re keeping score at home, that is 114-3 over Zatkoff and Murray combined. Failing to take advantage of that disparity has the Rangers on the ropes.
“Both teams can check well,” coach Alain Vigneault said. “They checked better than we did. You have to find a way to make some plays with the puck, and we didn’t make any.”