NEW YORK — The New York Rangers knew they couldn’t afford to spot the Pittsburgh Penguins a 2-0 lead in this opening-round playoff series.
Not with the Penguins forced to lean on their No. 3 goaltender.
Not with the series preparing to shift to PPG Paints Arena for Games 3 and 4.
Oh, New York might not have been aware that the Penguins were 18-2 in the previous 20 series in which they won Games 1 and 2, but the Rangers obviously didn’t want to be in that kind of a hole when the series resumes in Pittsburgh Saturday at 7 p.m.
So while New York might not quite have been desperate for a win, it was highly motivated — and it showed, in what became a 5=2 victory at Madison Square Garden Thursday night.
Although the Penguins earned a split to start the series, if they hope to stay in it, they almost surely will need to get some offensive production from someone other than members of their No. 1 line.
Those three — Sidney Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust — have accounted for five of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ six goals through the first two games. Evgeni Malkin’s triple-overtime game-winner in the opener is the lone exception.
Louis Domingue, making his first career start in the Stanley Cup playoffs, stopped 35 of 40 shots and helped to keep the Penguins within striking distance for much of the evening, even though they were forced to use an injury-diluted lineup.
The Penguins played without defenseman Brian Dumoulin, left winger Jason Zucker, right winger Rickard Rakell, as well as goalies Tristan Jarry and Casey DeSmith.
Zucker, who had been labeled a “game-time decision” by Coach Mike Sullivan about seven hours before the opening faceoff, did not dress for the third game in a row. With Rakell also missing, Drew O’Connor appeared in his first-ever Stanley Cup playoff game.
Dumoulin, who usually skates alongside Kris Letang on the No. 1 pairing, was replaced by Mark Friedman, who made his NHL playoff debut. Dumoulin is not a regular participant in optional skates, but took part in one Thursday, presumably to test the injury that forced him to sit out Game 2.
The Rangers were at less than full strength, too, as Ryan Lindgren, who plays opposite Adam Fox on New York’s top defense pairing, and blue-collar forward Barclay Goodrow were scratched.
Andrew Copp staked the Rangers to a 1-0 lead at 6:50 of the opening period, beating Domingue from the right hash after taking a cross-ice feed from Artemi Panarin.
Panarin figured in on the second goal, too. Unfortunately for him, the Penguins scored it.
Crosby picked off a Panarin pass in the neutral zone and moved into the New York end. He was hit by Rangers defenseman Jacob Trouba, but Marcus Pettersson swooped in to collect the puck and threw it toward the net.
Although Igor Shesterkin made the save, Guentzel swatted in the rebound at 8:52 for his third of the series.
Shortly before Guentzel tied the game, Domingue kept the Penguins within a goal by robbing Mika Zibanejad from the left side of the crease.
The Penguins, to the considerable (and loud) dismay of the MSG crowd, had the only two power plays of the opening period, but failed to capitalize on either.
New York got a chance with the extra man just 65 seconds into the second period, when John Marino was penalized for cross-checking.
Six seconds before his penalty was to expire, Ryan Strome deflected an Adam Fox shot past Domingue for a 2-1 lead.
It was the Rangers’ second power-play goal in two chances in the series.
Rust had a chance to pull the Penguins even again when he had a breakaway shortly after Strome scored, but his shot went wide of the net.
That miss proved costly when Chris Kreider deflected a Frank Vatrano shot past Domingue at 12:06 to make it 3-1, the Rangers’ second two-goal lead of the series.
New York appeared to be taking control of the game as the period progressed, but Crosby revived the Penguins with an extraordinary individual effort at 18:34.
He claimed the puck in the defensive zone and carried it into the New York end before weaving through several Rangers and getting it to Rust, who tossed a backhander at the net.
Shesterkin rejected Rust’s shot, but Crosby grabbed the rebound and tossed it into the net to make it 3-2.
Shesterkin preserved New York’s lead with stellar saves on Malkin and Crosby early in the third, and an unlucky bounce restored the Rangers’ two-goal advantage at 8:02.
Panarin, who was behind the goal line, tossed the puck toward the front of the net, where it caromed off the right skate of defenseman Mike Matheson and between Domingue’s legs.
That goal short-circuited a strong surge by the Penguins, who had recorded the first nine shots of the period.
Penguins-killer Frank Vatrano, who had been largely contained for the first five periods, victimized Matheson is a different way at 9:49, getting past him along the right-wing boards before beating Domingue on the glove side to effectively put the game out of reach.