A team playing out the string would not have come back the way the Rangers did Wednesday night against the Pittsburgh Penguins at the Garden. Down two goals to the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions entering the third period, and with no real shot at the playoffs to incentivize them, somehow the Rangers kept fighting, and pulled off an unlikely 4-3 overtime win over the Penguins.
“Nothing to lose,’’ Mika Zibanejad said when asked how the Rangers were able to will themselves to keep playing hard. “And that’s kind of the mentality we have to have. No one’s counting on us. We believe that we can win games, and that’s what we’re trying to do. By just taking it a game at a time, we’ll see what happens at the end of it.’’
Zibanejad scored with 3:17 left in the third period to tie it 3, then notched the 100th goal of his career to win it at 2:53 of overtime. And rookie goalie Alexandar Georgiev had 37 saves, including one a penalty shot by Evgeni Malkin with 10.7 seconds left in regulation to force the extra time.
The win lifted the rebuilding Rangers to a 5-2-1 record in the eight games since the Feb. 26 trade deadline. They are eight points out of a playoff spot with 11 games remaining. It may not be the best way of increasing their odds to win a top-3 pick in the NHL draft lottery, but the fans in the Garden didn’t seem to mind.
Georgiev, who was called up after backup goalie Ondrej Pavelec suffered a knee injury, has started two straight games and won both. Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said this week that Georgiev will play more as the Rangers try to figure out if they can trust him to be Henrik Lundqvist’s backup next season. His teammates have made it clear they don’t mind having the 22-year-old Georgiev (3-2, 2.75 goals-against average, .929 save percentage) playing behind them.
“He’s been so good for us,’’ forward Chris Kreider said of Georgiev. “It’s been easy to play in front of a guy like that. We’ve been really lucky my entire time here, regardless if it’s Hank, or his backup, or even third string, in this case.’’
As far as whether the Rangers can consider themselves in the playoff race, Kreider, who scored the Rangers’ first goal, on a power play rebound in the third period, and set up both Zibanejad’s goals, danced around the question.
“It’s a group of professional athletes,’’ he said, carefully avoiding any discussing of longshot playoff hopes. “Guys aren’t going to quit, right, so it’s one game at a time.’’