PITTSBURGH — The scoresheet showed that Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad finally were major factors, freed from having to chase Sidney Crosby around defensively.
Each scored twice in Game 6 on Friday night as the Rangers beat the Penguins, 5-3, staving off elimination for a second straight game and forcing a Game 7 in their first-round series at 7 p.m. on Sunday at Madison Square Garden.
They rallied from a 2-0 first-period deficit at PPG Paints Arena, with Zibanejad scoring twice within 76 seconds in the second period and Kreider’s slap shot blooping over Louis Domingue — who looked like a third-string goalie on the play — for the winner at 18:32 of the third period.
Andrew Copp’s empty-net goal with 27 seconds remaining clinched it.
“We battled back,” coach Gerard Gallant said. “Showed some character with our group. It wasn’t looking too good in the first.”
Crosby is out with a suspected concussion and his status for Game 7 is uncertain even after he skated on his own on Friday. He was hurt on defenseman Jacob Trouba’s inadvertent high hit in the Rangers’ 5-3 Game 5 win on Wednesday night at the Garden, and Trouba became Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh, booed whenever he touched the puck.
Not that the crowd forgot about Igor Shesterkin (31 saves) with repeated derisive “I-Gor, I-Gor” chants.
“It’s very difficult,” said Shesterkin, who stopped 20 of 21 shots in the final two periods after allowing 10 goals in his combined three periods and being pulled from Games 3 and 4 in Pittsburgh. “I try to keep focus. When they try to say ‘Igor,’ I just say ‘OK.’ ”
Meanwhile, Kreider countered the narrative that top-line center Zibanejad had been struggling.
“Even when the puck is not going in for him, he still does so many things that are under-appreciated,” Kreider said. “It’s insane to think the only people who can really see it are the ones who are in our room or understand the game. He’s been getting his chances. You knew he was going to break through.”
Entering Game 6, Zibanejad had four assists in the series before notching his first career playoff four-point game. He acknowledged before the game that his line had spent too much time focusing on Crosby through the first five games.
He and Kreider had six shots apiece in Game 6.
“A lot of credit to my teammates around, people around,” Zibanejad said. “If the hard work is there, it’s going to turn around eventually. I’m just trying to work hard.”
Zibanejad was dominant in the second period.
The Penguins were in control before Evan Rodrigues took a retaliatory roughing penalty on defenseman Ryan Lindgren at 5:00 of the period. Five seconds later, Zibanejad connected on a one-timer to bring the Rangers within 2-1.
He then connected on a one-timer from the left to tie it at 2 at 6:21 of the second period.
Zibanejad nearly made it a natural hat trick as he jumped out of the penalty box as the Rangers killed off a Pittsburgh five-on-three advantage that lasted 67 seconds, but he hit the post on a breakaway backhander.
Domingue again denied Zibanejad the hat trick with a glove save after Shesterkin’s brilliant up-ice feed led to a power-play odd-man rush. But Kreider knocked in the rebound to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead at 13:48 of the second period.
That power play was courtesy of another needless Penguins penalty, as defenseman Mike Matheson was called for a four-minute high stick after hitting Frank Vatrano from behind.
Evgeni Malkin, elevated into Crosby’s spot on the Penguins’ top line, tied it at 3 with a great individual effort at 16:36 of the second. Malkin swiped Trouba’s pass out of the Penguins’ zone, then caught up to the puck up ice and beat Shesterkin on the breakaway.
Jeff Carter’s rebound goal opened the scoring at 14:12 of the first period and Bryan Rust buried a one-timer at 15:58 to make it 2-0. But the Rangers kept the Penguins more to the outside in the last two periods.
“It was a better commitment by us,” Gallant said. “In the first period, we weren’t skating. We weren’t paying attention to the game. We weren’t working hard enough. And then it all changed.”