PITTSBURGH — Ferris Bueller said life comes your way fast in the playoffs and even faster when Sidney Crosby, on the other side, is playing some of the most compelling hockey games of his storied career. Yogi Berra said it gets late early in the playoffs, especially when you’re down 2-1 and on the road to Game 4 in a best-of-seven game.
Those truths are obvious, presumably even to the Supreme Court, as the Blueshirts await Monday’s Game 4 against a Penguins team that has dismantled its big color field structure from each of the first three competitions of this first-round series. The games are played at a million miles per hour. The Rangers just can’t calm things down for more than a shift or two at a time.
The Blueshirts are in a difficult position, but not an impossible one. Just over 37 percent of teams that trailed 2-1 in a best-of-seven while the next one was on the road prevailed. The lowercase cup is either one-third full or two-thirds empty.
That’s all that counts now. It’s a beautiful thing for the organization that the team’s high-end youngsters stepped up without a bit of fear and went toe-to-toe with their more experienced opponents.
There’s no way you’d know this is K’Andre Miller’s first time at the dance when the second pro took on No. 87 in his controversial match. Little did they know this was the first crack postseason for Lottery twins Kaapo Kakko and Alexis Lafreniere or for their center on the kid line, Filip Chytil.
“I’m happy with everyone,” said head coach Gerard Gallant and also brought Braden Schneider into the conversation. “I’m happy with the growth they’ve had throughout the season, they’re all getting better, they’re all confident.
“Obviously, the longer we drive, the better it will be for them and our team. The growth of these players is really satisfying for me.”
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But Rangers are not here to talk about the future. Not now. Development was a by-product of the season, not the priority. The mandate was to reach the playoffs. The mandate is to win this round in which the club started with home advantage against a team without a goalkeeper No. 1, which also became a team without a reserve team.
There’s no direct comparison here, the Blueshirts start with Igor Shesterkin, but nobody would want this team to be last year’s Knicks, who were hailed for their unexpected feel-good season that may have ended with a first-round loss of a five-game elimination ended have predicted their fall from grace in 2021-22.
Rangers have scored nine goals in total in their last two games but failed to turn third-stringer Louis Domingue’s carriage into a pumpkin. He’s proven ready for his close-up. But the equation of this series has been irrevocably and dramatically changed by Sidney Crosby, a possessed man who has turned back the clock a decade or more.
It’s 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 show he belongs in the conversation about the NHL’s elite centers. So far, in three games where he has a point in five-on-five (one assist), three points total (three assists) and was an unindicted co-conspirator in the Penguins’ Game 3 game-winning goal, he hasn’t gone the way he did he had hoped.
This may see Gallant lose his character overseeing rapid changes on the fly, but Rangers will need to figure out how to unleash Crosby’s Zibanejad for a series of shifts that will allow him and linemates Frank Vatrano and Chris Kreider enable them to be the hunted rather than the hunters.
The Blueshirts were far too disconnected and scrambling all over the ice for far too much time in this series to keep up with the high-octane pace established by Crosby and his linemates Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust. The fourth line that caused the most damage in Game 3 was Pittsburgh’s, with the admirable 2014 Brian Boyle reminding us how impressive he can be in the postseason.
All is not lost. The real Igor Shesterkin is expected to be in the nets in Game 4. But the Rangers as a group have to do their best in this game. If the future doesn’t depend on it, then the present does.