Rangers coach would’ve preferred Erik Gustafsson make better decision in key Game 5 moment

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

You could tell the question pained Peter Laviolette to answer. That’s why it took the New York Rangers coach several seconds to formulate a response, one where he tried to straddle the fence about a decision Erik Gustafsson made at a key juncture of a crucial 3-2 loss to the Florida Panthers in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday.

Early in the second period, with the Rangers having just taken a 1-0 lead and on the power play, they had the opportunity to go on a 5-on-3 advantage. Former Blueshirts defenseman Niko Mikkola plowed into Igor Shesterkin off a shorthanded opportunity and the official’s arm immediately was raised signaling a Florida penalty.

Several Rangers converged on Mikkola behind the net, but nothing more egregious than some pushing took place. That is until Gustafsson arrived and knocked Mikkola to the ice. And even that likely would have been overlooked. But when Gustafsson continued to rough up Mikkola when lying on top of him, the Rangers defenseman earned himself a two-minute minor, negating New York’s pending two-man advantage.

“At that point in the game, you probably want the 5-on-3,” Laviolette explained. “It’s understandable as a reaction out there, players are in scrums, it’s been a physical series the whole time. ASnd so somebody jumps in there defending a goalie and you admire that. But it’s also playoff hockey too, so we’ve got to keep things under control.”

Translation: Laviolette appreciated Gustafsson being a stand-up teammate, but wished he held back and let the Rangers try to make the Panthers pay for the transgression on the scoreboard.

The Rangers would have had 1:21 of a 5-on-3. One goal scored there would’ve changed the whole complexion of things. The Garden would have been alive following special teams goals in rapid-fire succession, after Chris Kreider had just gotten things rolling by scoring a shorthanded goal two-and-a-half minutes prior.

But it wasn’t meant to be.

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Rangers lost momentum, game after failed power play in second period

NHL: Stanley Cup Playoffs-Florida Panthers at New York Rangers
Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

What transpired instead was couple looks on the 5-on-4 for New York, including Kreider knocking the mask off Sergei Bobrovsky’s head with a rising shot from the slot. But no goal. And two minutes or so after all penalties were served, Florida tied it up on a Gustav Forsling goal off the rush.

Though Shesterkin kept the Rangers alive, the Panthers broke through again midway through the third period on Anton Lundell’s tie-breaking goal, again off the rush. And the Panthers eventually salted away a critical road win to take a 3-2 series lead back to South Florida for Game 6 on Saturday.

This is not to lay all the blame at the skates of Gustafsson. Just as it wasn’t solely Blake Wheeler’s fault that the Rangers lost Game 4 because of his penalty in overtime that led to Sam Reinhart’s game-winning goal on the power play.

But it was key moment in the game. And in the heat of the moment, Gustafsson made the wrong decision.

Perhaps, the defenseman was sick and tired of being on the receiving end of being hammered by the Panthers at every turn in this series. More than likely, he just reacted without thinking, after seeing Shesterkin sprawled on the ice.

Gustafsson went on to play more than 20 minutes Thursday. He committed a game-high four giveaways, not including how he inadvertently gave away prime 5-on3 power play.

Jim Cerny is Executive Editor at Forever Blueshirts and Managing Editor at Sportsnaut, with more than 30 years of... More about Jim Cerny

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