Do or Die tonight with season on the line

There’s no tomorrow. That’s a line from Rocky III. Apollo Creed’s words for Rocky as he trains for the rematch with Clubber Lang certainly apply to tonight’s game.

It’s do or die. Facing playoff extinction following a nightmarish Game Four, the Rangers have no choice. They must win Game Five at MSG against the Penguins to extend the best-of-seven first round series.

By now, we know how tough the Pens are. Led by Sidney Crosby, they lead the series three games to one. After slowing the top line down in Game Three, the Blueshirts had no answer on Sunday night.

The word “soft” was used by Gerard Gallant during a brief postgame. To a man, the players know how poorly they played. A repeat and it’ll be a sad ending to a good season.

They must play every shift like it’s their last. That means bringing a much better strategy to tonight’s elimination game. Don’t get sucked into the more wide open style the Pens have played.

Tighter checking and more consistent forechecking are keys to a victory. So are shots. Something they haven’t done enough of on Louis Domingue. That goes for the power play. Even though they haven’t gotten too many opportunities, they’re 0 for their last 7 since starting the series 2-for-2.

Filip Chytil has it right. They must bring it. That means more shots and less fancy passes that have gotten them in trouble. That line with Alexis Lafreniere and Kaapo Kakko have played the right way in their first postseason.

By getting pucks in and winning the board battles, they’ve been able to cycle the puck. That’s lead to shots and scoring chances. Simple is better now. If there’s an opportunity to shoot with traffic in front, they can’t pass it up.

Let’s think back to what Ryan Strome said yesterday. They’ve been a resilient team all season. It’s time to find out what kind of character they have. Win this game and the pressure shifts to the Pens. They don’t want to return for a Game Seven.

If they’re to come out victorious later, they’ll need their best players to play like it. That means Chris Kreider must lead the way. He was on the ’14 and ’15 teams that came back from a 3-1 series deficit. He’s been the glue. His 52 goals and 26 power play goals were a big reason for the team’s success. The longest tenured Ranger needs a big game. He must be physically involved and score a goal.

If Kreider is the emotional leader of this team, then Artemi Panarin and Mika Zibanejad are its top scorers. Along with Adam Fox, who had a forgettable night in Pittsburgh the other day, the Blueshirts’ trio need to step up. They’ve been ineffective thus far. That can’t be the case tonight.

Everyone knows how much Igor Shesterkin has meant to the season. He’s up for the Vezina. They nominated Shesterkin along with Jacob Markstrom and Juuse Saros for the award. Shesterkin must have a short memory. He can’t change what happened in Games Three and Four. However, he still can change the story.

That means being sharper and making the big saves. It also means having strong rebound control. Something that he didn’t have in Pittsburgh. He had trouble holding onto shots due to the pressure in front. Igor needs a good night.

Of course, he can’t do it alone. The defense must be a lot better. They hung him and reliever Alex Georgiev out to dry. It was embarrassing. There was no structure. That can’t happen later.

Both Fox and Jacob Trouba need to play much steadier. Those are their best defensemen. Fox can’t have any costly turnovers and fail to get back. Trouba must play with that edge he did during thr season. As tough an assignment Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust are, he has to do a better job.

It can’t all fall on partner K’Andre Miller, who’s still learning. He’s put in a better effort this series. But there have been moments where he got caught on for goals against. His skating and reach are strengths. So are his instincts. He and Trouba are the shutdown pair. They have to be in sync from the drop of the puck.

Whether Ryan Lindgren plays, Fox knows how he must play. It’s obvious that not having Lindgren has hurt. They play well off each other. That isn’t an excuse. If he can go, Lindgren will be in. Then it becomes a question of does Gallant go with seven D and 11 forwards. Or will it be a regular alignment.

Much of what has made the team effective is the energy Ryan Reaves supplies. He definitely brought that in the first two games. Obviously, the hitting can get his teammates going and the crowd. He along with Kevin Rooney and either Dryden Hunt or Jonny Brodzinski can bring the lunch pail mentality if Gallant plays four lines.

As much as they’ve missed Barclay Goodrow, who really could’ve helped frustrate the Pens with his tenacious style, that doesn’t matter anymore. The Pens have key guys out too, but have overcome it to put themselves in a strong position.

Frank Vatrano and Andrew Copp were acquired by Chris Drury to make a difference. We’ve seen it both after the deadline and in these playoffs. Copp scoring a goal in the first three games including shorthanded to tie Game Three. Vatrano tallying twice and factoring in on a couple of more goals.

To their credit, they’ve been good. However, nobody in the top six was the other night. It starts with Zibanejad, who is still without a goal while going up against Crosby. Then Panarin, who despite two goals including a three-point game, hasn’t been consistent enough.

The best players must be that in an hour. Strome, who was effective during the first three games, must rebound from a bad Game Four. Sad as it might sound, this could be his final game as a Ranger. He’s been a good leader and player.

Gallant has the last change tonight. He must find the right match-ups. If that means getting Zibanejad away from Crosby, so be it. Maybe the Panarin line can do a better job on the forecheck.

How about getting the top two lines out against the Pens’ bottom six? Mike Sullivan has been able to. Gallant must handle this game like a Game Seven. If that means shortening up in the third period, so be it.

We’ll find out a lot more about these Blueshirts tonight.

About Derek Felix

Derek Felix is sports blogger whose previous experience included separate stints at ESPN as a stat researcher for NHL and WNBA telecasts. The Staten Island native also interned for or hockey historian Stan Fischler and worked behind the scenes for MSG as a production assistant on New Jersey Devil telecasts. An avid New York sports fan who enjoys covering events, writing, concerts, movies and the outdoors, Derek has covered consecutive Staten Island Yankees NY Penn League championships in '05 and '06. He also scored Berkeley Carroll high school basketball games from '06-14 and provided an outlet for the Park Slope school's student athletes. Hitting Back gives them the publicity they deserve. In his free time, he also attends Ranger games and is a loyal St. John's alum with a sports management degree. The Battle Of Hudson administrator and chief editor can be followed below on Twitter and Facebook.
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