By Sean Hartnett
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Ondrej Pavelec figured he’d see action during a busy stretch for the Rangers that includes three divisional games in five nights. But the 30-year-old goaltender was called on sooner than expected, as flu symptoms forced Henrik Lundqvist to miss Tuesday’s showdown against the rival Penguins in Pittsburgh.
In a game that was played at a breakneck pace by two speed-based teams, Pavelec was far from rusty in his first appearance since Nov. 28. He had entered the night with a .889 save percentage, but he stopped 41 of 44 shots to guide the Rangers to a 4-3 victory.
Pavelec faced a light workload in the first period, stopping three of four shots as the teams hit the intermission tied at 1. The Penguins then turned up the pressure considerably in the second period, and Pavelec was up to the challenge. Pittsburgh fired off 23 shots in the middle frame and Pavelec turned away 22.
Over the final two periods, Pavelec recorded 38 saves. He made a slew of clutch stops in the closing minutes to stun the crowd at PPG Paints Arena. Notably, he turned away everything Pittsburgh’s superstar duo of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin threw at him. Crosby put six shots on goal, while Malkin registered five.
In the battle of backups, Pavelec outdueled sizzling-hot Tristan Jarry, who had started the season 4-0-0 with a 1.99 goals-against average and a .937 save percentage. But against the Rangers, Jarry surrendered four goals on 29 shots.
There was a slice of good fortune in the Rangers’ game-winning goal. Pavel Buchnevich’s shot took a bizarre deflection off Kris Letang’s skate and sailed over Jarry’s outstretched glove.
The Rangers played a very strong first period against the back-to-back Stanley Cup champions, but they became turnover-prone in the second period, which contributed directly to the Penguins considerable offensive zone time and scoring chances. If you give the Penguins a sniff of the puck, they’re going to create goal-mouth traffic. There aren’t enough words to praise the way Pavelec was able rise to the occasion.
When the Rangers made their push back, the fourth line of Paul Carey, Boo Nieves, and Jesper Fast was at the forefront.
Nieves scored his first career goal and won six of 10 faceoffs in 13:05 of ice time. He used his 6-foot-3 frame effectively to win puck battles and he hounded the Penguins on the backcheck. With his speed, strength, tenacity, and draw prowess, he’s quickly proving to be an asset.
Fast’s goal that tied the game at 2 in the second period was a product of serious effort at both ends of the ice. First he took the puck from Malkin in the Rangers’ end and then successfully followed Brady Skjei’s rebound.
Fast made difference-making plays throughout the night. Lately, the Swede, who is known more for his defensive aptitude and hustle, has been finding the net more regularly. Fast has notched four goals in the last six games, and nine points over the last 13. Coincidentally, the Rangers are 9-0-1 when Fast has recorded a point this season. They are 14-6-2 when Fast is in the lineup.
Over the course of a season, star players aren’t always going to be available or at their best. Backup goalies and fourth liners are going to need to steal victories and get in on the scoring, respectively. On Tuesday, the role players showed up and delivered for the Rangers against a star-heavy team in its own building.
A very positive sign.
Follow Sean on Twitter at @HartnettHockey