There are losses. And then there are losses. That the Rangers got absolutely humiliated in Game Four by the Penguins 7-2 is as bad as it gets.
They now trail the series three games to one. The Rangers will face elimination on Wednesday in a do or die Game Five at The Garden. Lose and it’ll be a sad conclusion to a feel good season.
Obviously, I don’t want to see them go out like that. But right now, the Pens have proven they’re the better T-E-A-M. They’re winning every battle. They’re scoring with ease on Igor Shesterkin, who again got chased after a miserable second period that saw the Blueshirts outscored 5-1.
It isn’t all on Shesterkin. He wasn’t sharp in either game played at Pittsburgh. Maybe the triple overtime marathon and then facing another heavy workload has been a factor. He made 118 saves on 124 shots in the first two games. Since, he’s allowed 10 goals on the next 45 shots.
You don’t have to be a math expert, or a nerdy statistical analyst. That’s not good. It’s the product of how poorly the team has played. Without Ryan Lindgren, it’s become evident that the defense isn’t the same. Adam Fox was miserable tonight. He scored a goal, but his defensive game was non-existent.
It isn’t even about Justin Braun, who’s filled in admirably. Fox finished minus-three and didn’t distinguish himself. He’s far from alone. It was also a nightmare game for Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad. They were too passive. All three top Rangers over passed and turned over pucks.
That’s not how you win in the postseason. Meanwhile, the Pens have played classic playoff hockey. They’ve gone North/South by getting bodies in front of Shesterkin and broken down the lackluster Ranger defense. It’s all five skaters. There’s no cohesion. If it continues, they’ll be able to book tee times in 48 hours.
Sidney Crosby has dominated this series. The Penguin captain and all-time great scored a key tying goal on the power play and set up two more to pad his point total to nine (2-7-9) in the first four games.
The three points allowed Crosby to reach 200 for his brilliant postseason career. If they didn’t know about number 87 before this first round, they sure are learning a valuable lesson. His line has dominated the match-up. Jake Guentzel added his fifth goal of the series.
That’s what Crosby said following his team’s Game Four victory. You don’t have to like him. But it’s easy to respect the complete player and leader he is. Closing out a series isn’t easy. That was his message.
The big question is can the Rangers dig down deep and mount a comeback. In 2014, it was the valuable playoff experience and leadership of Marty St. Louis and Brad Richards that helped rally the Blueshirts back from a 3-1 series deficit to win a memorable second round over the Crosby and Evgeni Malkin Pens.
In that stirring comeback which was the first of two in Rangers franchise history, Henrik Lundqvist allowed only three goals in the final three games. The Rangers never trailed. Inspired by St. Louis, who lost his Mom France after Game Four, they came together to win that series and make a run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
That was a great run. Can a more inexperienced batch of Blueshirts figure it out? Right now, it seems impossible. But they have to remember to take it one period at a time. The goal is to win Game Five. Extend the series. Then, the pressure shifts to Pittsburgh.
It sure won’t be easy. Given the amount of battles they’ve lost along with losing the one huge edge they had in net due to the Pens getting to Igor, there are a lot of questions. They’ll need to play much harder and smarter.
That means no more East/West predictable nonsense that’s put them in this gigantic hole. No more back passes that go out of the zone or fuel the Pens’ transition. No more lazy stick checks. Better defensive coverage. A lot more shots and traffic on Louis Domingue. The third string hero for Pittsburgh.
It’s easy for us to say it can’t happen. Right now, everyone’s written off the Rangers. The only thing that matters is what the guys in that locker room think. If they come with the right mindset, it’s still possible.
They’ll need some leadership from Chris Kreider. He’s the only player left from that 2014 roster. He knows what it takes to come back. That great era of Blueshirts did it twice in back-to-back years. It was the Penguins in the second round of 2014. Then the Capitals the following year in the same round.
The good news is Kreider wasn’t seriously hurt after taking a hard Zibanejad shot high that saw him exit during a much more evenly played first period. He returned for the start of a disastrous second that is the worst period the Rangers have played this season.
It was inexplicable. Even if you want to point the finger at Patrik Nemeth for an undisciplined high-sticking minor penalty that led to a very strange tying Crosby goal that I don’t even think he knew was in. Regardless, they got it right in Toronto after a lengthy review that allowed the Pens to tie the game.
That doesn’t fully explain what we saw. How they went from an early goal from Alexis Lafreniere off some superb teamwork thanks to Braden Schneider, Kaapo Kakko and Filip Chytil- to completely melting down in embarrassing fashion during an uncompetitive second period was mind numbing.
Equally as eye rolling was coach Gerard Gallant’s decision not to stop the Pens’ momentum after the scored two straight goals over a 24-second span to turn a 1-1 tie into a 3-1 lead before a bedlam of loud Pittsburgh fans who made sure to chant, “Ig-or, Ig-or!!!” That’s two consecutive games where Gallant didn’t take his timeout when it was obvious they needed one.
While his decision to bench Shesterkin for backup Alex Georgiev worked last game following a four-goal first period, he waited too long this time. Even after Fox got a rare Ranger bounce when he had his pass go off Mike Matheson to cut the deficit to 4-2, it was temporary.
How the mind boggling second ended was brutal. It was bad enough Shesterkin let in a soft goal to Mark Friedman earlier that made it 4-1. But he was defenseless on the fifth and sixth goals.
Instead, a lazy Fox pass was easily intercepted by Kris Letang, whose shot was headed wide until an unchecked Danton Heinen redirected it home with 1:07 remaining. K’Andre Miller was beaten on the play. He got caught watching.
That was already a backbreaking goal. What followed was pure madness with Jeff Carter easily burying his third from Jason Zucker as more Rangers stood around aimlessly. Those two goals that came 40 seconds apart turned a doable two-goal deficit into a 6-2 rout in favor of the home side.
Chalk it all up and the game was over. Malkin added the extra point. Or to borrow a term from Sean McCaffrey, “an A-Rod goal.” That was your final margin.
I don’t know what else to say. I already summed it up well above. I didn’t particularly understand why Gallant broke up the Lafreniere, Chytil and Kakko line. They were the only line going.
That’s because they didn’t play vanilla hockey. They got pucks in, recovered them and used their speed and skill to create a goal and more scoring chances. If the top two lines played like that along with the pass happy Fox, they might have a chance. It remains to be seen.
Another thing I didn’t account for was the Pens’ playoff experience. When you have Crosby, Letang, Malkin along with Brian Boyle and Carter, they know this is likely their last rodeo. Especially for Crosby, Letang and Malkin. They’ve played hungry and determined hockey.
One thing is clear. So far, Mike Sullivan has out-coached Gallant badly. If he can’t get his team to buy in and stop playing cute, they’ll be going home for the summer in two days. That means better adjustments both before the start and during Game Five.
The regular season was special. But the goal wasn’t just to make the playoffs. Regardless of Lindgren and Barclay Goodrow being out along with Tyler Motte, they need to play with much more urgency. Play every shift as if their life depends on it.
It isn’t like the Pens aren’t without key players. They lost Brian Dumoulin after the wild Game One. But Matheson has stepped up. They are still without Rickard Rakell, who skated without contact.
Tristan Jarry is getting closer. They lost Casey DeSmith in the second overtime of the first game. But they’ve played much better in front of Domingue.
Another thing. I can understand moving Panarin up to play with Zibanejad and Kreider. But he’s better off with Ryan Strome and Andrew Copp. Lafreniere got moved up to the second line. But Frank Vatrano went to the fourth line while Kevin Rooney played with Chytil and Kakko.
It didn’t make sense. There’s a difference between tinkering with combos during the regular season and postseason. It looked like desperation.
Gallant made one change. He inserted Jonny Brodzinski on the checking line. He initially was with Rooney and Ryan Reaves. I like his skating ability as he can win battles and create. He did find Reaves open for a shot that missed wide when it was a game. Does he stay in or does Dryden Hunt return?
It depends on Lindgren. He’s missed three consecutive games with whatever has been nagging him. I’m sure he’ll try to go in Game Five. He’s a gamer. Would Turk try using an 11 forward, 7 defensemen alignment for a must win scenario?
As bad as he’s looked the last two games (three periods), I don’t see Shesterkin not starting. He’s the guy they’ve gotten here with. Give Georgiev credit for coming in and again playing well in relief. He’s definitely boosted his value.
Georgiev stopped 10 of 11 shots tonight. In Game Three, he made 19 saves on 20 shots. It’s not easy to come in like that in the playoffs. He definitely deserves respect.
It would be very easy to go more in detail and break down all the Penguin goals. There’s no point. It’s an exercise in futility.
Congrats to Lafreniere on his first career postseason goal. He beat Domingue on a good wrist shot far blocker side. He was the best Ranger in just his fourth playoff game. I’ve been encouraged by how Lafreniere, Kakko and Chytil have competed.
I believe the fat cat$ sure can learn from the simple yet effective approach three of the team’s youngest players have applied. That’s how they need to play. Then, maybe we’re back discussing a Game Six.
Since I didn’t do a conventional writeup due to how bad this game was, I’ll have more tomorrow. Stay tuned.
THREE STARS 🌟 🤩 ✨️
3rd 🌟 Kris Letang Pens 2 assists, 3 SOG, 3 hits, 3 blocked shots, +1 in 23:28
2nd 🌟 Jake Guentzel Pens goal (5th), assist (1), 7 SOG, +1 in 17:28
1st 🌟 Sidney Crosby Pens goal (2nd), 2 assists (6, 7), 13-for-20 on face-offs, 9 points in the series, dominant