PITTSBURGH -- Rookie center Kevin Hayes capped another gritty, difficult win for the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference First Round with the biggest goal of his life.
Hayes scored 3:14 into overtime to lift the Rangers to a 2-1 victory in Game 4 against the Pittsburgh Penguins on Wednesday at Consol Energy Center.
"That might be the best one," Hayes said when asked where the overtime winner ranks among goals he's scored in his hockey career.
The Penguins scored first for the first time in the series and generally dominated the opening 20 minutes, but the Rangers stayed close, regrouped and rallied.
New York got a goal from center Derick Brassard late in the second period, 22 saves from goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and Hayes' overtime winner to earn a 3-1 lead in the best-of-7 series with an opportunity to close out the Penguins in Game 5 on Friday at Madison Square Garden (7 p.m. ET; NBCSN, SN, TVA Sports 2, ROOT, MSG).
All four games so far have been decided by one goal, including three 2-1 wins for New York. It's the first time the Rangers have won three games when scoring two or fewer goals in one Stanley Cup Playoff series since the 1928 Cup Final.
"It was an ugly first," Rangers defenseman Marc Staal said. "They just came out harder. They were forechecking hard, beating us to pucks, beating us in battles, and it wasn't good enough. It was kind of a wakeup call to regroup and start playing better. I thought we did a good job. We came out and played a much better second period and carried it over into the rest of the game."
Hayes felt fortunate that the puck even bounced to him for the game-winner.
The play started when Rangers defenseman Keith Yandle rimmed the puck around the boards. It was played behind the net by right wing Martin St. Louis, who curled around the right post with body position between the puck and Penguins defenseman Ben Lovejoy.
St. Louis got the puck to left wing Carl Hagelin, who fumbled it before kicking it to his backhand so he could pass it through the crease and under Pittsburgh goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 22 saves. Fleury was down, and Hayes was able to knock it into the net.
"I felt it go through, under my arm pit," Fleury said. "I didn't know there was a guy right there though."
St. Louis and Hagelin said Wednesday morning that their line with Hayes in the middle had to deliver more. They answered their own challenge.
"We'd been average to below average, and I thought from the start we were pretty good [Wednesday night]," Hayes said. "Beyond the goal, we generated a lot of chances, a lot of offense. We talked about it throughout practice, we weren't happy with our performance and we still have work to do for next game."
The Penguins obviously have plenty of work to do if they're going to get back in this series. They don't have to look hard for proof that it's possible to come back from a 3-1 series deficit.
Pittsburgh had a 3-1 lead on New York in the second round last spring, but the Rangers wiped it away and won the series, limiting the Penguins to three goals over the final three games. They won two of the final three games on the road, which is exactly what the Penguins will have to do.
"We should be loose and going after it," Pittsburgh captain Sidney Crosby said of how the Penguins should approach Game 5. "You don't want to be tentative in games like that. You've gotta leave it all out there. That's really the only thing you can do: Go out there, be desperate and get it back here."
The Rangers know how the Penguins can play when they push for offense. They did that in the third period of Game 3 and nearly erased a two-goal deficit before losing 2-1. They did it in the first period Wednesday and built a 1-0 lead while limiting the Rangers to two shots on goal.
Patric Hornqvist scored 2:22 into the first period to give the Penguins the lead, but Lundqvist shut the door from there, including seven saves in the third period.
"Their best; everything," Lundqvist said when asked what he expects from the Penguins in Game 5. "It's a desperation moment for them, and the key is to match that. You have to grab every opportunity you get to finish a series. You can't just think you have more chances. You've gotta go for it and match their desperation."
The Rangers finally started doing that Wednesday approximately six minutes into the second period, when they were in the middle of killing a penalty.
They finished the kill and got eight of the next 10 shots on goal in a span of less than eight minutes.
"That was the turning point," Hagelin said. "They still had a good start in the second, but five or six minutes in, we started getting pucks deep and started getting some control in their zone. We spent more time in their zone. That gives you some offensive confidence, and after that we started making plays, got some chances, and got that huge goal there by [Brassard]."
New York had quality shot attempts from in tight by right wing Mats Zuccarello, defenseman Dan Boyle, Hayes, St. Louis and left wing Chris Kreider before Brassard scored his third goal of the series at 17:15 to tie the game.
"In games where there is not a lot of room and offense being created, for him to find the back of the net is huge for us," Staal said of Brassard.
The Penguins got the start they wanted by getting the puck behind the Rangers defense twice on their first shift. They carried it over shift by shift throughout the first period, using their speed and forecheck to negate New York's speed and rush game.
The Rangers didn't have a shot on goal until 11:35 of the first period, and it was a 56-foot slap shot by center Derek Stepan that barely made Fleury flinch.
"We had them for four chances in the third period; we had them for one chance in the first period," Penguins coach Mike Johnston said. "We're playing the right way. Yeah, I know the results haven't swung in our favor 2-1, but they will."