Collier: Things will be even tighter in May for the Penguins

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Oh say can you see Jussi Jokinen?

Can you see Jussi lifting the Penguins past the New York Rangers with one goal in regulation and another in a shootout to snuffle that little hiccup of a Penguins losing streak?

These are common questions today under the circumstances, this being exactly three weeks from the end of a truncated hockey season that couldn't lead to a better place than a first-round playoff smackdown involving these same two teams.

"We're obviously two teams that are hungry," said Brandon Sutter a couple minutes after Penguins 2, Rangers 1, in their final regularly scheduled near-brawl. "The first half of their season probably didn't go as they planned, but their defensive-zone coverage is back to where it was before and now they're playing like they were last year, with the same defensive-zone coverage their identity is built on."

A year ago the Rangers were the best team in the Eastern Conference, and they don't look anything like a team that is struggling to make the playoffs. But based on the events of Friday night, there would be nothing more delicious than a Pittsburgh-Gotham best-of-seven series starting on or about May 1.

It might take until then to sort out all the culpability for an evening of ill will, at no point more alarming perhaps than when James Neal had to be escorted woozily from the ice after taking a suspiciously placed elbow from Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto.

"I saw the play; it was a situation where Del Zotto was going for a reverse hit," said a purposefully restrained Dan Bylsma. "He obviously knows James is coming. I don't think there was any question about where the contact was or where he made contact."

Del Zotto had the puck behind the Rangers goal when Neal swooped in on the forecheck, but just as he got his nose into the play, Del Zotto turned hard to the right and brought that elbow up, raising the temperature of things to an unhealthy level.

In a game in which there was virtually no open ice on the Penguins' home pond, when neither Penguins nor Rangers player could create space, let alone time and space, they decided instead to try a little nastiness.

Deryk Engelland tangled with New York's Ryane Clowe near the top of the show, and the fact that they pounded each other's heads for 90 seconds without any evident consequence was an apt metaphor for everything else that was going on.

Meaning nothing for the majority of first two periods of the kind of hockey game that left you to ponder such questions as whether Kiss Cam has to be a violation of your Fourth Amendment rights.

Matt Cooke got himself leveled by the Rangers' Steve Eminger, but no amount of full body massage by either club could turn the attention from the goaltenders.

Marc-Andre Fleury, who stopped 34 of 35 shots and all three in the shootout, and Henrik Lundqvist, who stopped all 26 Penguins shots not fired by Jokinen, staged a monumental duel worthy of their reputations, not to mention their capacious skill sets.

There was probably no better prelude to the potential playoff meeting between these two teams than to bang the snot out of each other all through an overtime and a shootout.

It was Jokinen, the last of four major components acquired by Penguins general manager Ray Shero Wednesday at the trade deadline, who put the Penguins ahead with a wrister from the left circle 30 seconds into the third period.

The New York goal came all of three seconds after Fleury had authored the most unusual save of the game, stopping a Derick Brassard shot against the post to his right and falling backwards on top of it. From that point and for what seemed like a minor eternity, Fleury squirmed on top of the puck like a guy who had fallen asleep on top of the remote control.

It took the on-ice officials, in extended conference with mission control in Toronto, several minutes to determine that they could turn up no evidence that the puck crossed the goal line.

With the crowd still buzzing in satisfaction and its "Fleury!" chant only beginning to fade, New York's Derek Stepan won an offensive-zone faceoff from Sutter and swept the biscuit to Rick Nash between the circles. Nash pounded a 35-footer past Fleury to forge a 1-1 tie at 15:11.

Despite a sterling career record in shootouts, Jokinen wound up taking the first opportunity only because Neal was unavailable, according to Bylsma. Jussi beat King Henrik decisively, but the space between these teams isn't anywhere close to the seven or eight rungs that separate them in the conference standings.

"Definitely a few skirmishes tonight, but it's not for me to say what was right and what was wrong," Sutter said. "It's part of the game now. Things are tight."

If it's this tight now, imagine May. Can Jussi it?

mobilehome - penguins

Gene Collier: gcollier@post-gazette.com.


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