PITTSBURGH — The Rangers worked hard on Tuesday on all 200 feet of the ice, and luck was on their side at both ends.
Ondrej Pavelec, in his first start since Oct. 28, made 41 saves and the Rangers edged the Penguins, 4-3, on a fluky goal from Pavel Buchnevich in the third period. A cross-ice pass by the Russian winger caromed off defenseman Kris Letang’s skate and high over s rookie goalie Tristan Jarry with 8:48 left in regulation, and Pavelec and his teammates held on for the victory.
The win was a huge relief for Pavelec, forced to step in suddenly when Henrik Lundqvist came down with the flu. He had last played on Nov. 28, in relief against the Florida Panthers and it was only his seventh appearance all season. Historically, the Penguins had owned Pavelec in his career with Atlanta and Winnipeg. He was 2-13-1 with a 4.20 GAA and .870 save percentage against them.
“I needed this one to get the points . . . finally,” said the Czech veteran, who added that the layoff “wasn’t an issue at all. I haven’t had much starts in the last few weeks. It doesn’t really matter if you play 10 or 1, but of course, it’s great for my confidence to win a game. It wasn’t easy, but that’s the way it is; you have to make the most of it. “
In addition to the comebacks by his teammates, who had trailed 1-0 and 2-1 and were tied at 3 early in the third period, Pavelec was pleased by his good fortune. The Penguins hit iron often; “Four posts,” he said.
The speedier Rangers (15-10-2) had the better of the play in the first, with quick sticks that short-circuited Penguins plays. The Rangers outshoot them 10-4, but came away with a 1-1 tie thanks to Jarry. Patric Hornqvist’s shot in front bounced off Rick Nash’s skates and the Pens winger recovered it to Pavelec’s right. His cross-ice pass went through Nash’s skates and with Nick Holden and Ryan McDonagh watching, Conor Sheary didn’t miss from the right post at 15:13.
But center Boo Nieves’ first NHL goal, a low shot from the right circle that zipped through Jarry’s legs, brought the Rangers back at 16:49.
In the second, Jake Guentzel found Phil Kessel trailing for a one-timer at 7:11. At that point the Pens had 10 shots in the period to the Rangers’ two, and led 2-1. Pavelec denied two Evgeni Malkin shots before and after Jesper Fast had tied the score at 2.
Brady Skjei poked the puck loose in the Rangers zone and he sped up ice on an odd-man rush, cutting to the net for a shot that Jarry blocked. But Fast swept in and fired over the goalie at 12:26.
The Blueshirts forged their first lead of the night on Mats Zuccarello’s breakaway goal that trickled through Jarry’s pads at 17:20 after the Penguins had dominated the second, finishing with 23 shots to the Rangers’ eight.
“I kind of expected [the barrage of shots],” Pavelec said. “It’s a tough building to play in. We worked so hard in the first. I knew you can’t play this way the whole game. It was important that we were still able to score.”
Leading 3-2, the Rangers had a second power play early in the third, but Kevin Shattenkirk’s second penalty of the night nullified it and that cost the Rangers the lead on a bad change. Hornqvist jumped off the bench behind Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh, as Rick Nash came on the ice and beat Pavelec on a breakaway to square the score again.
“He gave us a real strong game,” coach Alain Vigneault said of Pavelec. “I’m real happy for him, he put in a lot of work. I’m sure there’s going to be a few more of those to come.”