Rangers winger Kevin Hayes’s tally at 3:14 of overtime gave New York a 2–1 win and a 3-1 series lead over Pittsburgh.
It was hardly a perfect game for either side, but Game 4 between the Rangers and Penguins certainly had its moments. Whether it was possession momentum shifting like a storm front or the frantic closing seconds of regulation that saw the teams trade chances on each end, Wednesday night’s game was about making a statement. And in the end, after a broken play led to a frenzied goalmouth scramble, Rangers winger Kevin Hayes’s jubilant scream at 3:14 of overtime said it all. With a 3-1 series lead over Pittsburgh, the Rangers can close it out Friday at home at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET).
Here, then, are some thoughts on Game 4:
1. Evgeni Malkin is fighting something
Whether it’s a suspected back problem or simply a monkey on his back, Malkin has struggled to be a factor for most of the series. After going without a shot in Game 3, he managed his first and only one on goal nearly eight minutes into the third period on Wednesday. It was a fair chance, as he outskated the coverage and shoveled a backhanded attempt on Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but for a two-time Art Ross winner, going 133 minutes between shots is simply unacceptable. Without a goal in his last 14 games and now without a point in his last nine, Malkin is in unprecedented territory. Coach Mike Johnston, however, continues to try to jumpstart the center’s game. In Game 4, Malkin played nearly 19 minutes, down slightly from the 20:53 he logged two nights ago but more than his ice time in Games 1 and 2. Before Game 3, Malkin predicted that he’d break his slump that night; he went without a shot. Again Wednesday, he said this would be the game. It was not. With Pittsburgh down two games to the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers, time is running out.
2. A bad first period didn’t doom New York
Fully expecting a furious Pittsburgh attack, the Rangers still opened Game 4 on their heels. Managing just two shots on goal during the first 20 minutes, New York looked—well, a little like the Penguins in Game 3. Some of that was reacting to Pittsburgh’s fast start. Fighting hard for pucks along the boards and positioning in the slot, the Penguins took an aggressive approach to the start of Game 4 and were rewarded just 2:22 in. With a crowd of bodies in the slot, a loose puck skittered out to the point where defenseman Ben Lovejoy shot into the mess looking for a beneficial tip. Power forward Patric Hornqvist provided it, giving Pittsburgh the early 1–0 lead. For the remainder of the period, even through two power plays, New York seemed to play with a sense of panic, and that led to miscues. After all, the Rangers had struck first in each of the three previous games. In fact, playing from behind early hasn’t been a terribly regular occurrence for New York. It gave up the first goal in less than 40 percent of its games this season, and it trailed after the first period just 16 times. The Rangers’ record in those 16 games, however, was a solid .500, and on Wednesday night they showed that resilience and found a way to recover their game plan in the second. New York’s long lead passes got better and less rushed, and helped set up its first goal, which started with a crisp outlet pass by Mats Zuccarello and finished with a second and third effort from Derick Brassard.
3. Penguins agitator Maxim Lapierre did a bunch of good things, but the one bad thing was really annoying
Particularly early in the game, the defensive specialist had done a remarkable job of taking away a sense of pace from the Rangers’ offense. On the penalty kill, he was very effective, a big reason why New York managed just one shot on three power-play opportunities. He was playing in-your-face-and-under-your-skin hockey, targeting some of the Rangers’ most effective players. But then there were the theatrics he put on at the end of the first. When Dominic Moore shoved into him near the bench, Lapierre flailed, threw his stick, grabbed his face and drew a penalty. Replay after replay could not ascertain what contact had befallen him. (Trust me, I’ll be the first to take all of this back if there is an alternate angle I did not see.) Sure, on the one hand, Lapierre helped his team with a power play. But on the other, who in the world can argue for diving in a crucial game?