NEW YORK — If Martin St. Louis wasn’t a fan favourite during his first two months with the New York Rangers, he certainly became one during a very emotional weekend.
St. Louis came to New York in March in a deal in which popular team captain Ryan Callahan was shipped to Tampa Bay. When he didn’t light up the scoreboard right away, the Madison Square Garden crowd was slow to warm to him.
That all changed Sunday night.
Three days after the sudden death of his mother, St. Louis scored 3:34 in, and the Rangers avoided elimination for the second straight game by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins 3-1.
Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series is Tuesday in Pittsburgh. New York advanced in the first round with a Game 7 win over Philadelphia.
St. Louis rejoined his teammates for Game 5 in Pittsburgh on Friday, after a quick trip to Montreal to be with his family. That dedication inspired his teammates during a 5-1 win and carried over to Sunday.
“It’s probably one of the cooler things I’ve been a part of in my professional career,” said Derek Stepan, who earned the first assist on St. Louis’ goal. “The emotion on that goal is something that I will never forget.”
Fans were already chanting “Mar-ty, Mar-ty” on his first shift. The cheers got louder after he scored. St. Louis, the first star of the game, patted his heart when he came out to an ovation from the crowd.
“Mother’s Day, my dad is here, my sister is here,” St. Louis said. “It’s been a tough time for my whole family. To be able to get the lead in the first period, it was a good one.”
But not the prettiest of goals. St. Louis got in good position in front of the net. Stepan swiped at the puck in traffic and knocked it off St. Louis’ right leg and into the net.
“I got a pretty good bounce,” St. Louis said. “I know (my mother) helped me through this. It’s a great win by the guys.”
Carl Hagelin pushed the Rangers’ lead to 2-0 just 2:51 later, and Henrik Lundqvist stopped 36 shots to keep Pittsburgh at bay.
Derick Brassard made it 3-1 in the second period. Brandon Sutter scored the lone goal for the Penguins, who got 26 saves from Marc-Andre Fleury.
The Penguins, who led the series 3-1, failed in their first attempt to advance to the Eastern Conference finals with a 5-1 home loss on Friday. Now the pressure has shifted to them, and frustration is showing.
Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby took a penalty at the end of the second period that gave the Rangers a power play to start the third. Several scrums also broke out — including one after the final buzzer.
“With a minute left in the game, emotions run high,” Crosby said. “I don’t think that’s why we lost. We put ourselves in a bad position early. We fought hard and tried to get back, but you can’t continue to do that in the playoffs. You can’t start like that.”
The team that has scored first has won every game.
Under coach Dan Bylsma, the Penguins are 1-7 at home when having a chance to clinch a series. Overall, the Penguins are 2-6 in Game 7s in Pittsburgh.
On the flip side, the Rangers are 9-2 in their past 11 games when facing elimination, dating to Game 6 of the first round in 2012 at Ottawa. New York has never won a series it trailed 3-1 and has never beaten the Penguins in the playoffs.
Buoyed by another early lead, the Rangers pressed for more, and got it on Hagelin’s unassisted goal at 6:25. Hagelin’s initial shot attempt from the left-wing boards was blocked by defenceman Rob Scuderi. Hagelin got to the loose puck in the centre of the left circle and sent a hard backhand sailing past Fleury for his fourth of the post-season.
Bylsma burned his lone timeout to try to calm his team that was being outshot 7-2. Pittsburgh reversed that trend and cut its deficit in half before the end of the first.