PITTSBURGH — The Rangers dishonored themselves and their season with a total eclipse of the heart in Monday’s 7-2 debacle of a Game 4 defeat to the Penguins that leaves the club one loss away from ignominious extinction.
There is no excuse, none whatsoever, for the manner in which the team’s marquee players were swept away like so much refuse in this one. They were overwhelmed in their matchups to such an extent that you wanted to turn your eyes away from the carnage, especially during Pittsburgh’s five-goal second period.
What was Mika Zibanejad doing? What about Artemi Panarin and Ryan Strome? What about Adam Fox? Jacob Trouba? This one — and this series — is not on the young’uns. This series is on the team leaders.
“We played soft. We were soft all over the ice,” said head coach Gerard Gallant, whose team was beaten in one-on-ones all night long. “That’s the biggest difference. We were soft all over the ice.”
There is no greater indictment from this coach. But it is not as if he and his staff have been innocent bystanders through this series as the Blueshirts structure has generally been flimsier than paper-mache. Gallant called 7-2, “a team effort.” That includes the guys behind the bench.
The Rangers can’t or won’t sustain a forecheck. The Rangers can’t or won’t play straight-line hockey through the neutral zone, put the puck in deep and force Pittsburgh defensemen to turn and chase. Their five-man defensive game is in shambles. Their physical element, so stout at home through the opening two-game split, has evaporated.
And at the worst possible moment, playing behind some scraggly and ugly hockey, all right, Igor Shesterkin has not been able to do anything about it. With cacophonous taunts raining down on the Rangers’ MVP for the second consecutive game, Shesterkin was rattled again even if he was left to fend for himself too often. What else is new?
What was new is that Shesterkin once again had trouble finding pucks in his feet and through traffic, unable to get stoppages of play as the Penguins camped out on his doorstep without a care in the world while digging for loose change.
The 26-year-old was not the problem, but neither has he been a solution. Shesterkin came to Pittsburgh having allowed six goals on 124 shots in 165:39 (.952 save percentage, 2.17 GAA) in the first two games of the series. He then surrendered 10 goals on 45 shots in 59:53 in these two (.778/10.01) after having been pulled for the second straight game for Alex Georgiev, this time after 40 minutes.
Shades of Henrik Lundqvist against the Penguins in the five-game 2016 first-round defeat in which The King was pulled from both Games 4 and 5 in the series that featured Penguins’ third-string goaltender Jeff Zatkoff getting the starts in the opening two matches.
Still, Gallant said he is coming back with Shesterkin for Wednesday’s Game 5 potential elimination match. The decision has been made.
“The best goalie in the league,” he said.
Three of the Penguins’ five goals in the second period that extended the score from 1-1 after 20 to 6-2 after came off deflections. Two came off direct defensive-zone faceoff losses, one by Zibanejad, the other by Filip Chytil. One of the goals was scored when Ryan Strome failed to clear the zone and the team neglected to cover the middle of the ice. What else is new?
The Rangers are bleeding shots again, back to where they were through much of the season. Worse, they appear to have lost their poise. They were unhinged and unwatchable much of the night, allowing the Penguins to score twice within 24 seconds early in the second period and then twice within 35 seconds late. This was just hysterical play.
Zibanejad, who has not scored a goal, is taking a hellacious beating in his match with Sidney Crosby. It is difficult to watch this proud Swede having such a difficult time of it in the wake of a season when No. 93 reasserted himself as a member of the league’s upper echelon.
The Panarin-Strome connection has gone haywire. Both have been eliminated. The Zibanejad-Chris Kreider connection has short-circuited. The Blueshirts have allowed twice as many power-play goals as they have scored.
Their great strengths, their calling cards through the season, they have turned to ashes here. They have been able to do nothing — nothing — to shake the confidence of third-string goaltender Louis Domingue.
The Blueshirts were outworked in Games 3 and 4. They were out-thought in Games 3 and 4. They were humiliated in Game 4.
If this is what the playoffs were going to be, they could have just picked up their participation trophies at the end of Game 82 and saved everyone from all this trouble.