It’s Penguins versus Rangers Friday night at the Consol Energy Center as the Penguins look for the knockout blow in game 5 of their second round matchup. The Penguins come in flying high up 3-1 in the series after a business-like 4-2 win Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden. Since Derrick Brassard’s game winner in game 1 for the Rangers, it’s been all Pittsburgh, all the time.
Game 4 saw the Penguins take the crowd out of things early when Evgeni Malkin beat Henrik Lundqvist on a spin-around backhander from in close. The goal was a harbinger of things to come as Pittsburgh was able to do whatever they wanted in the offensive zone against a Ranger team that decided it was the perfect time to play its worst game of the playoffs. The effort left the Ranger faithful with little reason to cheer what might have been the last time they see their team play in person this season.
At least the Ranger fans got to use their voices as boos poured down on its offensive “star” Rick Nash. The only thing that’s been “offensive” so far for Nash is his game. Don’t worry though…Ranger fans are a forgiving bunch. Just ask former players Petr Nedved, Tom Poti, and Michal Rosival about that. Enjoy the next 4 years Rick.
The Penguins enjoy this 3-1 series lead for a simple reason: their top players have badly outperformed the Rangers’ top players. Sidney Crosby, Malkin, Chris Kunitz, Kris Letang and Marc-Andre Fleury have simply been better than Nash, Martin St. Louis, Derek Stepan, Ryan McDonagh and Lundqvist. Out of that bunch for the Rangers only Lundqvist has played like a player worthy of his lofty status.
If the Rangers have any dreams of playing beyond Friday night, that group needs to bring their “A” game (to be fair, we don’t know if Stepan even has an “A” game) and actually play some desperate hockey…the type of hockey they should have played Wednesday night. Sure, it’d be nice to score on the power play or at least not give up a shorthanded goal in the process, but it’s unfair to expect miracles at this point.
It’s time for coach Alain Vigneault to get drastic with his lines because whatever he’s done up until this point simply isn’t good enough. Even the trio of Mats Zuccarello, Benoit Pouliot, and Brassard, which has been the 1 combination to get some consistent offensive pressure, needs to be shuffled around in the hopes that one of those three can jump start another line.
It’s also time try some different personnel on the power play. At this point would it hurt at all to stick Brian Boyle in front of the net and hope something hits off his big body? Or to take St. Louis off the power play? It’s been nearly 3 weeks since their last power play goal. You don’t need advanced stats to tell you that isn’t very good.
The Ranger bunch sounded like a defeated squad Wednesday night. Where the focus should have been on how to better handle the Penguins’ stars and not miss defensive assignments, Brad Richards instead was upset that the fans may have hurt Nash’s feelings by booing him. You’re right Brad…fans who plunk down $150 for a seat for the privilege of purchasing $9 beers and $7 pretzels should have cheered the $7.8 million flop wearing the #61 jersey.
The other issue the Rangers are facing is the Penguins are running like a well-oiled machine right now. Pucks get deep in the defensive zone…pucks get out quickly. Pucks get deep in the offensive zone…pucks get cycled and they generate scoring chances. Even Fleury looks like a new man in the nets, a far cry from even 10 days ago against Columbus where every shot had the feel it would find the back of the net. Combine all that with the superstar play of Crosby and Malkin and it’s a lethal combination.
That’s not to say there is no chance the Rangers can win. Maybe they can catch Pittsburgh getting a little too ahead of themselves and looking forward to the next round. Maybe they can get an early one by Fleury and put a little doubt in his head. Maybe having the pressure of the home crowd off will allow the Ranger team to relax and play with a “nothing to lose” attitude.
Let’s also not forget the last trump card they hold in net. When you have an elite keeper like the Rangers do you always have a puncher’s chance to steal a game on the road, despite how poorly the team may be playing in front.
No more excuses about being tired, the crowd booing, tough schedules, unlucky breaks, etcetera. The Rangers need to find the intestinal fortitude to win one game if they want to extend their season. Will it actually happen?
In short, no. If trailing 2-1 in the series playing in front of your home crowd can’t jump start you, how do you expect to figure it out on the road playing in what will be a raucous Consol Energy Center atmosphere? Plus if there was ever a time for a team to possibly sit back and be okay with a road split, wouldn’t it have been Pittsburgh in game 4? They were coming off two straight wins, regained home ice advantage, and knew they would only have to take care of business at home in order to advance.
So what happened? From the drop of the puck the Penguins put on a hockey clinic and stepped on the Rangers’ throats. After a back-breaking shorthanded goal to take a 2-1 lead entering the third period, Pittsburgh didn’t sit back…they attacked, outshooting the Rangers 9-4 in the period. Even after Zuccarello scored to bring the Rangers within one, the Penguins didn’t get rattled. Instead they called on their big guns to seize the game back and ice it less than a minute later. Game. Set. Match.
This Penguins team smells blood. Their fans smell it. They know that if they can take care of business in game 5, they’ll get some rest before taking on the winner of Montreal and Boston. And with any Pittsburgh luck, those two will beat each other up for the full 7 before advancing.
As for the Rangers? All that’s left is the eulogy.