Commentary: Whiteout went from wipeout to right turn for Penguins

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There was no need nor apparent inclination to panic on the part of the Penguins last night, not even when the manufactured whiteout morphed toward a wipeout.

"We knew it was the first game and we knew that we were a little rusty, and maybe things didn't go our way early," said Marian Hossa five minutes after the Penguins got off the deck for a 5-4 victory in a desperately entertaining Game 1. "We knew if we scored the first one, we'd start rolling.

"And that's what happened; we battled our way back."

With white-shirted Penguins fans filling every seat at Mellon Arena for purposes that are still unclear, the white-shirted hockey players went smartly about the business of winning the game, at least for a good chunk of the episode, which I don't think was the intended effect.

This tedious whiteout caper never made sense, frankly. At Penn State, where it became popular through some corporate marketing spasm, it never made sense because the visiting team always wears white.

Last night, in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals no less, the New York Rangers joined the Penguins audience in an even whiter shade of pale, very nearly skating off with a victory and a bold opening bid in this best-of-seven series.

Had Scott Gomez's deflection of a Jaromir Jagr centering pass not kissed off the post to the right of Marc-Andre Fleury with less than 10 seconds left, Game 1 would have been tied for a third time and headed toward some incalculable outcome.

The Penguins put the first eight shots of the series on the doorstep of Henrik Lundqvist, but it was New York that bolted to a 3-0 advantage before the middle period was even half over. The first two Rangers goals were almost purely by accident, which was one reason the Penguins resisted the jitters.

It appeared that center Brandon Dubinsky got the ice-breaker, as it was he who was planted in front of Sergei Gonchar and Fleury with less than seven minutes remaining in the first period, and it was he who celebrated first when Fleury turned to fish the first goal of the series out of the net.

Replays showed credit for the goal should go to Martin Straka, who whipped it into the slot off the skate of Gonchar. New York's second goal was even more dubious, if not downright cartoonish.

Mark Staal launched a slapshot from the left point that might have landed on the roof of the Church of the Epiphany down the street had not Chris Drury's stick diverted it toward the ice at a 90-degree angle. That explains why Fleury's reaction seemed reminiscent of Fred Flintstone leaping to avoid the cat when he flings the front door open. With Fleury in mid-air, the puck trickled past him at ice level.

A considerable delay ensued as officials pondered the question of whether Drury's deflection had been made possible only by a high stick.

"That was controversial," Penguins coach Michel Therrien would say later. "At that point we were a little shaky, but this shows the character of this team. This was a great accomplishment, for these young guys to bounce back against a veteran Rangers team that is committed to defense."

Not until New York Agitator General Sean Avery blistered one from the right faceoff circle under the retreating figure of Brooks Orpik and behind Fleury for a 3-0 lead did the Rangers have a goal of serious intent, resulting in a halfway serious predicament for the only people in the building not wearing white, the Penguins.

But the Penguins' response typified its scary offensive capabilities, chopping the lead to one goal in a span of 14 seconds in the second period, with Jarkko Ruutu flipping home Tyler Kennedy's pass to at least suggest Lundqvist's vulnerability, and Sidney Crosby filching the biscuit from Christian Backman behind the Rangers goal and setting up Pascal Dupuis in front on the very next possession.

The same kind of lightning then overturned New York's lead altogether, with Marian Hossa beating Lundqvist through the five hole and Petr Sykora converting Evgeni Malkin's pretty cross-crease pass only 20 seconds later to make it 4-3 Penguins.

"We have a lot of guys who can score goals; it was just a matter of time," Sykora said. "You just keep forechecking. I had a perfect shot, and I hit the pipe, but you've just gotta be patient."

The opportunity for panic now switched chairs, but the Rangers were having none of it either. Scott Gomez buried a tying goal at 10:04 of the third.

Some six minutes of manic skating later, Straka took a fateful interference penalty, unleashing Malkin to torture Lundqvist for an extended period. His first shot of the power play leaked toward Henrik's skates but not through, then Rangers defenseman Daniel Girardi had to throw himself on the ice to block a Malkin slapper. But with 22 ticks left in the man-advantage, Crosby wound up at the top of the right faceoff circle and fired the puck off Malkin's skate past Lundqvist to win it.

Malkin was likely Game 1's white knight.

Wearing black, of course.


Gene Collier can be reached at gcollier@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1283.


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