PITTSBURGH (AP) — Ondrej Pavelec didn’t know he was getting just his third start in the last six weeks until late Tuesday afternoon, when New York Rangers star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist came down with the flu.
The short prep time against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins seemed to suit Pavelec just fine. Pavelec stopped a season-high 41 shots and the Rangers took advantage of a fortunate bounce to edge the Penguins 4-3.
“It was a good hockey game, I think,” Pavelec said after beating Pittsburgh for just the third time in 17 career starts. “Not so much fun for the goalies, but we got the win. So, that’s huge for us.”
And huge of Pavelec, who came in just 1-4 on the season and has been a spectator during Lundqvist’s recent resurgence. Yet he withstood a steady barrage from Pittsburgh and more than a little luck. The Penguins hit a handful of posts, including one by Evgeni Malkin in the final seconds that would have forced overtime.
“We had 44 shots,” Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan said. “We had a significant amount of scoring chances. We just couldn’t get that tying goal.”
Boo Nieves, Jesper Fast, Mats Zuccarello and Pavel Buchnevich scored for the Rangers. Buchnevich provided the game-winner when his centering pass deflected off Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang and by Tristan Jarry 11:12 into the third period.
“It’s about finding a way to win on the road, we did that,” Rangers forward J.T. Miller said. “We got pucks to the net and a couple bounces. But sometimes, it’s not pretty.”
Phil Kessel picked up his team-high 13th goal for the Penguins. Conor Sheary added his ninth and Patric Hornqvist his 11th for Pittsburgh, which saw its season-high four-game winning streak snapped. Jarry finished with 25 saves but could only watch the puck smack off Letang’s skate and flutter by his glove to give the Rangers the lead for good.
“It’s a tough play,” Sullivan said. “It’s a 3-on-3. We’ve got numbers back. It goes off a skate and in the net. I don’t think we can overthink that one.”
Penguins captain Sidney Crosby was held scoreless as his streak of five straight multipoint games ended.
Two of the marquee franchises in the competitive Metropolitan Division are starting to find their footing after bumpy starts. New York and Pittsburgh both came in 4-1 over their last five games thanks to spectacular play by their stars.
For a night, however, the Rangers had to find a way to make do without Lundqvist, who has emerged from an early season funk to lift the Rangers back into contention but was a surprise scratch a few hours before the opening faceoff. Enter Pavelec, just 2-13-1 with a 4.20 goals against average in his career against Pittsburgh.
New York controlled play but Sheary gave the Penguins a 1-0 lead when he took a pass from Patric Hornqvist and pounded it by Pavelec 15:13 into the first for his ninth goal of the season. The Rangers tied it just over 90 seconds later when Nieves beat Jarry with a wrist shot from the top of the right circle for the first goal of his career.
Pittsburgh regrouped from a sleepy first period to dominate the second, pumping 23 shots at Pavelec. New York, however, counterpunched expertly. Kessel’s one-timer from the slot 7:11 put the Penguins back in front but a rebound at the end of an odd-man rush by Fast and a knuckling shot off Zuccarello’s stick handcuff gave the Rangers a 3-2 lead after two.
Hornqvist took a perfect stretch pass from Malkin and beat Pavelec on a breakaway 3:35 into the third. The Penguins had several chances to go ahead but were held in check by Pavelec as the Rangers improved to 6-1 in their last seven games.
“It’s a really important game for us, even though it’s early in the year,” Miller said. “A character win is a good way to put it.”
NOTES: Penguins D Justin Schultz left in the first period with an apparent lower body injury. He returned briefly in the second and did not play in the third. ... The Rangers called up Alexandar Georgiev from their AHL affiliate to serve as Pavelec’s backup with Lundqvist unavailable. ... New York also scratched D Steven Kampfer. ... The Penguins scratched D Chad Ruhwedel and Fs Greg McKegg and Josh Archibald. ... New York’s Michael Grabner played in his 500th career game.
Rangers: Finish a quick two-game road trip in Washington on Friday.
Penguins: Continue homestand on Thursday against the New York Islanders.
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