PITTSBURGH — Ferris Bueller said that life comes at you fast in the playoffs and even faster when Sidney Crosby is on the other side playing some of the most compelling hockey of his fabled career. Yogi Berra said that it gets late early in the playoffs and especially so when down 2-1 and on the road for Game 4 in a best-of-seven.
These truths are self-evident, presumably even to the Supreme Court, as the Blueshirts await Monday’s Game 4 against a Penguins team that has dismantled their structure for large swatches of each of the first three contests of this first-round series. The games are being played at a million miles an hour. The Rangers just can’t seem to calm things down for more than a shift or two at a time.
The Blueshirts are in a tight spot but not an impossible one. Just over 37 percent of teams trailing 2-1 in a best-of-seven with the next one on the road have prevailed. The lowercase cup is either one-third full or two-thirds empty.
That is all that counts now. It is a fine thing for the organization that the team’s high-end youngsters have competed without an ounce of fear and have stood toe-to-toe with their more experienced opponents.
You wouldn’t possibly know that this is K’Andre Miller’s first time at the dance off the way the sophomore pro has competed in his contentious match against No. 87. You couldn’t know that this is has been the first crack at the postseason for Lottery Twins Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere or for their center on the Kid Line, Filip Chytil.
“I’m happy with them all,” head coach Gerard Gallant said, folding Braden Schneider into the conversation, as well. “I’m happy with the growth they had in the season, they’re all getting better, they’re all confident.
“The longer we go, the better it’s going to be for them and for our team, obviously. The growth in those players is really satisfying to me.”
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But the Rangers are not here to talk about the future. Not now. Development was a byproduct of the season, not the priority. The mandate was to make the playoffs. The mandate is to win this round in which the club began with home-ice advantage against a team without its No. 1 goaltender that also became a team without its backup.
There is no direct comparison here, the Blueshirts start with Igor Shesterkin, but no one wants this team to be last year’s Knicks, celebrated for their unanticipated feel-good season that ended with a first-round rout of a five-game exit that may have presaged their 2021-22 fall from grace.
The Rangers have scored a sum of nine goals in the last two games but have not been able to turn third-stringer Louis Domingue’s carriage into a pumpkin. He has proven ready for his close-up. But this series’ equation has been irrevocably and dramatically altered by Sidney Crosby, a man possessed, who has turned back the clock a decade or more.
It represents a lot to ask, but the Blueshirts need more from Mika Zibanejad, who has been consumed by his match with Crosby. The challenge is immense, but this is No. 93’s chance to demonstrate that he belongs in the conversation about the NHL’s elite centers. So far, through three games in which he has one point at five-on-five (an assist), three points overall (three assists), and was an unindicted co-conspirator on the Penguins’ winning goal in Game 3, it has not gone as he might have hoped.
This may take Gallant going out of character by overseeing quick changes on the fly, but the Rangers need to figure out how to unleash Zibanejad from Crosby for a succession of shifts that might allow him and linemates Frank Vatrano and Chris Kreider to be the hunted rather than the hunters.
The Blueshirts have been far too disconnected far too much of the time in this series, scrambling all over the ice to keep up with the high-octane pace established by Crosby and his linemates, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. The fourth line that did the majority of the damage in Game 3 was Pittsburgh’s, with the admirable Brian Boyle sending a reminder from 2014 of just how imposing he can be in the postseason.
All is not lost. There is every expectation that the real Igor Shesterkin will be in nets for Game 4. But the Rangers as a group will need to be at their best in this one. If the future does not depend on it, the present most certainly does.