With just two games left in the regular season, the New York Rangers have secured first place in the Atlantic Division and Eastern Conference, but they have yet to hire an engraver for the President's Trophy. With only that somewhat superstitious prize to play for, perhaps it's not surprising that head coach John Tortorella decided to give Henrik Lundqvist the night off.
Penguins head coach Dan Bylsma, however, had every reason to throw his top assets out against the Rangers, including goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, but the injuries that have plagued his team all season claimed both James Neal and Steve Sullivan with the dreaded "lower body" injuries.
With the battered Penguins roster looking to clinch home ice advantage for their first-round series against the Flyers, the decision was made to challenge Martin Biron and the Ranger defense early and often, and it would pay off when Chris Kunitz scored by redirecting a Kris Letang shot off of his leg and into the net.
The Rangers, however, seemed ready to respond in kind. Attacking through the neutral zone, Brian Boyle dragged around the Penguin defense before firing a shot off Fleury's pads, and Brandon Dubinsky was in a perfect position to hammer the rebound home.
Two can play at that game, though, and the Penguins continued the scoring with a very similar play just over eight minutes in. Working the puck around the Ranger zone, Jordan Staal fired a long shot that Biron kicked out toward the boards, but Tyler Kennedy was there to grab the puck and return fire before the netminder could get back into position.
The Rangers would get an opportunity to draw even on the power play, but Fleury and his penalty killers protected the 2-1 lead through the first period.
A brief confrontation between Ryan Callahan and Kris Letang put the teams into 4-on-4 hockey, but neither team would capitalize. Instead, the game turned on a strange misplay by Biron a few minutes later when the goaltender lost his stick on a sprawling save against Pascal Dupuis. Trying to reach out and freeze the puck with his glove, he ended up knocking it across the crease to Richard Park, and the shot rid over Biron's side and into the net.
Smelling blood in the water after the goal, the Penguins would hammer Biron relentlessly, racking up 25 shots on goal by the end of the second period, while the Ranger offense a strong effort of their own, registering 17.
Hoping to respond early and bring the game back into reach, the Rangers challenged Fleury throughout the third period, but the game would be effectively settled midway through the period thanks to an all-star play that saw Sidney Crosby just miss Chris Kunitz with a long pass behind the Ranger net, but the veteran winger sent a no-look pass to Evgeni Malkin as he drove to the net for his 49th goal of the season.
It all seemed over except for the champagne for securing home ice when Brooks Orpik clobbered sophomore winger Derek Stepan with a blatant knee-on-knee hit at center ice. Orpik was given a five-minute major and a game misconduct and he was ejected from the match. Richard Park served the penalty, further reducing the Pittsburgh roster.
Artem Anisimov scored to cut the lead down to two goals with over two-and-a-half minutes of power play time left, and Tortorella called Biron to the bench for an extra attacker. The Rangers hopes of using the major to draw even would end, however, when Jordan Staal won a key defensive zone faceoff back to Kris Letang, who sent a long bouncing shot the length of the ice and into the empty net.
The 5-2 victory gave Fleury his 42nd win of the regular season, tying him with Pekka Rinne for the overall lead in the NHL, and also ties Fleury with Tom Barasso for the franchise's wins leader at 226.
Unsurprisingly, the story of the game may not be the action on ice, but the consequences off of it. With coach Tortorella calling out the Pittsburgh organization and players in his vitriolic postgame comments, it seems likely that the NHL could fine the bench boss for his remarks in addition to the likely supplemental discipline coming for Orpik that could deny the Penguins a valuable contributor in their final regular season matchup against Philadelphia on Saturday -- a game that is sure to set the tone for their meeting in the first round.