Alain Vigneault had said before Game Four of his team's Metropolitan Division Finals series with the Pittsburgh Penguins Wednesday night that it would take the Rangers "best game" in order to win and even the series heading back to Pittsburgh for Game Five on Friday. Instead the Rangers came up short in nearly all facets of the game, falling to the Penguins 4-2 Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden, and now face playoff elimination Friday at the CONSOL Energy Center, trailing three games to one.
"We haven't earned it enough, we haven't executed enough," defenseman Ryan McDonagh said postgame. "We have looks, can't finish, and haven't made it hard on the goalie and are not capitalizing on the chances we are given. We have to play better on all areas of the ice (Friday)."
Though they scored their first two goals since Derick Brassard's overtime winner in Game One in Pittsburgh, the Rangers never led Wednesday, costing themselves dearly with countless turnovers and giveaways. They also managed just 15 shots on goal--a season low--against Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury, who had posted back-to-back shutouts in the previous two games of this series.
Not even the return of Chris Kreider, playing his first game since undergoing surgery on his left hand in late March, could spark the Rangers in Game Four. Kreider played with energy and generated a quality scoring chance on his first shift of the game playing with Derek Stepan and Rick Nash, but also took a high-sticking penalty midway through the third period with his team trailing by two goals. Kreider logged 15:24 worth of ice-time, had one shot on goal and two hits, and was a minus one.
"I felt good one shift, rusty the next, good for a shift, rusty the next," Kreider said of his game. "I'm excited to play the next one because we have another opportunity. Whenever a team goes deep into this thing they always face some adversity, and that's what we've got right here. This is an opportunity to see what we are made of. It's gut-check time."
The Rangers woes on the power play cost them dearly for the third straight game in this series, though this time less for the fact that they failed yet again to score with the man advantage, and more to do with surrendering a backbreaking shorthanded goal late in the second period which handed the Penguins a 2-1 lead.
That goal, scored by Brandon Sutter with 1:33 to play in the second following a Nash turnover at his own blue line, more than negated the Rangers first goal in 145 minutes 30 seconds scored earlier in the period by Carl Hagelin. Having been shut out in Games Two and Three by Fleury, and already trailing 1-0 in Game Four, the Rangers finally broke through when Hagelin accepted a pass in the neutral zone from McDonagh and turned on the jets, splitting Pittsburgh defensemen Matt Niskanen and Rob Scuderi, and finished with a wicked snap shot past the glove of Fleury, tying the score 1-1 5:30 into the second period.
However, not even Hagelin's goal could get the Rangers offense going as New York recorded only one more shot the rest of the period, a Nash wrist shot from right wing off a 2-on-1 rush with Kreider at the 15-minute mark. It was the second odd-man rush Nash and Kreider were a part of in the second period, with a previous 3-on-1 gone awry when Nash's shot missed the mark from left wing.
New York was awarded its second power play of the game at 17:19 of the second when Evgeni Malkin tripped Brassard behind the Rangers net, but the Rangers struggling power play could not get untracked with Nash eventually having his chip pass off the wall intercepted by Kris Letang. The Penguins quickly transitioned the other way with Brian Gibbons skating in alone on Henrik Lundqvist before losing control of the puck. Sutter, though, beat McDonagh to the disc and flipped it into the cage over a fallen Lundqvist for his fourth goal of the playoffs, putting the home team in a 2-1 hole. An enraged Lundqvist smashed his stick over the goalpost after the goal.
"It's a tough one for the team, obviously," stated Lundqvist, who stopped 23 of 27 shots Wednesday. "We are looking to get that second goal, it's such an important goal. It was a tough one."
Pittsburgh had scored on its first shot of the contest, again coming off a Rangers turnover, just 2:31 into Game Four. Anton Stralman turned the puck over in his own end and Sidney Crosby swept the puck across the crease to Malkin, who spun around and beat Lundqvist between the pads with a whirling backhand shot, his fifth goal of the post-season.
The Penguins made it 3-1 when Jussi Jokinen's left wing shot hit Marc Staal and deflected past Lundqvist 7:02 into the third period. Mats Zuccarello gave New York some life when his backhand shot beat Fleury at 13:07; but just 57 seconds later Malkin's pass found Chris Kunitz all alone in the slot, and he snapped it past Lundqvist for his third playoff goal to give Pittsburgh a 4-2 lead.
"We didn't pick a good night to manage the puck the way we did tonight," said Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault of his team's 25 giveaways. "Our puck management tonight and execution tonight weren't very good and ultimately cost us the game."
Should the Rangers win on Friday night they would force a Game Six back at The Garden on Sunday.