The Pittsburgh Penguins were concerned about their lack of secondary scoring in the first two games of their opening-round playoff series against the New York Rangers.
And they should have been.
After all, members of the No. 1 line, which has Sidney Crosby between Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, had accounted for five of their six goals during the first two games at Madison Square Garden.
That kind of output said a lot about the quality of Crosby’s unit, but it was a serious indictment of the Penguins’ other forwards.
Well, that all changed during the Penguins’ 7-4 victory in Game 3 Saturday night at PPG Paints Arena.
The Rangers did some pretty effective damage control against Crosby’s line for most of the evening, but simply didn’t have an answer for … Evan Rodrigues.
He scored two goals and set up another as the Penguins took a 2-1 lead in the series, which will resume Monday at 7 p.m. at PPG Paints Arena.
It was, however, Danton Heinen who got the game-winner at 11:02 of the third period, when he broke a 4-4 tie.
The Penguins’ home building hadn’t provided much of an advantage for them in recent years; they were just 1-5 there in their previous six playoff games.
Winning Game 3 has proven to be critical to the Penguins’ chances of winning a series in which they split the first two. They are 8-2 in the past 10 when taking a 2-1 lead, 1-3 the past four times they’ve fallen behind, 2-1.
Jason Zucker, who was injured in the next-to-last game of the regular season, returned to the lineup and played alongside Jeff Carter and Kasperi Kapanen on the third line.
Rickard Rakell, who was injured in the opener, also was scratched.
So was Brian Dumoulin, who works opposite Kris Letang on the No. 1 defense pairing, and did not play for the second game in a row because of an unspecified injury.
His spot was filled by Mark Friedman for the second consecutive game.
Sergei Gonchar — a key member of the Penguins’ 2009 Stanley Cup champions — passed through the press box before the game.
When it was mentioned to him that the Penguins might be able to use him on their blue line in Game 3, Gonchar smiled and responded, “Couple of shifts.”
Even vintage Gonchar probably couldn’t have helped the Penguins put together a more productive opening period, though, as they built a 4-1 lead.
Brock McGinn staked them to a 1-0 lead at 1:57, when his backhander from below the goal line caromed off New York defenseman Patrik Nemeth and into the net.
The goal initially was waved off by referee Kyle Rehman, but a video review determined that Nemeth was responsible for the net being dislodged before the puck entered the net.
That gave the Penguins their first lead during regulation in the series, but it didn’t last long.
The Rangers, who are exceptionally dangerous off the rush, got a goal that way at 5:08, when Kaapo Kakko beat Louis Domingue, who made some sensational stops at key points in the game, from inside the left circle.
The Penguins’ power play, which has sputtered for several weeks, had two chances during the opening period, and looked awful on both.
It also scored on both.
Carter, positioned directly in front of Shesterkin, deflected a Rodrigues shot past him at 8:18 for his first of the series.
Then it was Rodrigues’ turn as, just 27 seconds before an Andrew Copp minor for high-sticking Zucker was to expire, he collected the rebound of his own shot off the backboards and beat Shesterkin from below the right hash for his first of series.
No. 2 came less than five minutes later, when Rodrigues threw a shot over Shesterkin’s glove from above the hash marks at 15:15.
Whether the intermission would have allowed Shesterkin to regain the focus and composure that seemed to be missing for much of the first period will never be known, because Rangers coach Gerard Gallant replaced him with Alexander Georgiev for the start of the second.
New York’s goalie wasn’t all that changed during the intermission.
The Penguins seemed to leave their commitment to sound team defense in the locker room, and New York scored twice in little more than a minute to make it 4-3.
Frank Vatrano threw a shot past Domingue from inside the right circle at 6:51, and Artemi Panarin scored from below the left dot at 7:58.
The Pittsburgh Penguins had a chance to pad their lead when Rangers defenseman Braden Schneider was penalized for hooking at 15:14 but instead, gave up a tying shorthanded goal.
Copp scored it at 15:59 after Letang lost the puck to Kevin Rooney inside the Penguins’ blue line.
The Penguins killed a pair of penalties in the first half of the third period, then reclaimed the lead when Heinen collected a loose puck and put a shot between Georgiev’s legs from the inner edge of the right circle at 11:02.
Heinen scored about a half-minute after Domingue made a spectacular save on Panarin to preserve the tie.
Guentzel and Carter added empty-net goals after Georgiev had been replaced by an extra attacker.
The victory was Mike Sullivan’s 43rd as coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, tying Dan Bylsma’s team record.