The New York Rangers are on the brink of elimination as the first-round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins heads back to New York for Game 5 on May 11. The Penguins have the momentum after two impressive victories in Games 3 and 4 at the PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh. In Game 3, the Rangers managed to tie the game at 4-4 after falling into a 4-1 deficit in the first period but could not complete the comeback and lost 7-4.
The Rangers had their backs against the wall entering Game 4 and needed to win to avoid trailing the series 3-1. The Rangers played their worst game of the series, and in the second consecutive contest, the Penguins scored the majority of their goals (five) during one period in their 7-2 win. The Rangers’ bad start in Game 3 and midway through Game 4 could be the turning point if the Penguins go on to win the series. Let’s take a look at what the Rangers need to do to win Game 5 and send the series back to Pittsburgh for Game 6.
Will the Real Shesterkin Please Stand Up?
Igor Shesterkin has been uncharacteristically bad in Games 3 and 4 during a regular season in which he is the favorite to win the Vezina Trophy. Though head coach Gerard Gallant pulled the Rangers’ starting netminder in consecutive games, not all the goals during the first period of Game 3 and in the second period of Game 4 were Shesterkin’s fault. During the last two games, his play proves the team is affected when its starting goaltender is not playing well and that he is their best player. The Rangers have won games this year in which they were not the better team due to the play of their goaltending.
According to Andrew Copp, the team’s play in front of Shesterkin during Game 4 is to blame, “He’s just one of us. We weren’t playing very good in front of him. It definitely wasn’t on him at all. It’s going to be up to every guy in the room to pull together and do what we can to win Game 5,” (from ‘Igor Shesterkin yanked again as Penguins put Rangers on brink of elimination, New York Post, 5/9/22).
Gallant commented about Shesterkin after Game 4, “He’s probably real frustrated. I don’t know, there was probably four goals that were deflected tonight. It’s a team effort. He’ll be back in there, and he’ll be ready to win the next game on Wednesday night. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him, and it was a tough night for our team. I’m disappointed more in our team than him. We just played a soft game.” According to the head coach, the Rangers’ starting goalie will be back between the pipes for Game 5, “Best goalie in the league. So I’m going to go with him.”
If it is more of a case of the Rangers playing better in front of Shesterkin, the team defense needs to improve immensely for them to get back into the series. Even if they win Game 5, they remain at a disadvantage down three games to two heading back to Pittsburgh for Game 6. However, when a team is near elimination during a playoff series, it needs to take it one game at a time to make a comeback less daunting. He and the team need to focus on winning Game 5 for now, followed by winning Game 6, if necessary.
Rangers’ Team Defense Needs to Improve
The loss of Ryan Lindgren after sustaining a lower-body injury during Game 1 on May 3 has affected the Rangers during the last three games of the series. Adam Fox, Lindgren’s defensive partner, has been paired with Justin Braun and adjusting to playing with someone other than the player he has been paired with for the majority of his young career. Fox and K’Andre Miller each finished an unconventional minus-3 during Game 4, which is not good for the odds of the team winning a game when their top blueliner in Fox is on the ice for several goals against.
During Game 3, the pairing of Braden Schneider (minus-2) and Patrik Nemeth (minus-3) were the two defensemen who performed the worst in the plus/minus category. Schneider had a turnover in the Rangers’ zone that led to one of the Penguins’ goals. The defense from the forwards needs to improve as well to keep the series going beyond Game 5. The top line of Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, and Frank Vatrano struggled defensively during Game 4, and Gallant moved Vatrano to the fourth line during the latest contest. The loss of Barclay Goodrow to a lower-body injury in Game 1 has impacted the organization as well due to his defensive and gritty presence, in addition to his leadership and recent Stanley Cup-winning experience with the Tampa Bay Lightning.
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The Rangers have not done themselves any favors by putting themselves at a disadvantage in the last two games with bad performances during the first period of Game 3 and the second period of Game 4. To change that and help enhance Shesterkin’s production, their team defense needs to play smarter in front of Shesterkin by not turning the puck over in the defensive and natural zones, as well as limiting rebounds for the Penguins.
Rangers Need a Boost From Their Special Teams
The Rangers did not contribute any power-play (PP) goals during the two contests in Pittsburgh, as they went a combined 0-for-4. During Games 1 and 2, they went 2-for-5 on the PP, and the penalty kill (PK) limited the Penguins to scoring one goal on the man advantage as they went 1-for-6. The Penguins went 3-for-6 on the PP on their home ice, and they are playing better on special teams as the series shifts to Madison Square Garden for Game 5.
The Rangers have capable players in Kreider, Zibanejad, Copp, Fox, Artemi Panarin, and Ryan Strome that can reignite their performance on the man advantage. Kreider was one of the best goal-scorers on the PP during the regular season but has not scored on the man advantage during the first four games of the series. He has contributed one assist and one short-handed goal on special teams during the postseason thus far.
The Rangers have reached the point of desperation due to their poor play in two road games of the first-round series. For as talented as they are, they’re a young franchise that lacks postseason experience compared to the Penguins. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Kris Letang have led them to playoff appearances annually for over a decade, which makes a difference in the first-round series against the Rangers. Panarin, Zibanejad, Kreider, Fox, and Shesterkin need to respond and lead the team out of a 3-1 deficit as they have been the core that has led them to success all season.
To have a chance to get back into the series, the Rangers cannot allow the Penguins to have huge games during one period as they did during Games 3 and 4. Getting Lindgren back in the lineup for Game 5 would be a boost as he has been a dependable defenseman on the first pairing with Fox for the last few years. In order to prolong their season past Game 5, they need to play better in front of Shesterkin and need their core leaders to take over the series beginning with Game 5 at home.