NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers are trailing the Pittsburgh Penguins 2-1 in the best-of-7 Eastern Conference First Round series because of their lack of execution in Game 3. Plain and simple.
The Penguins played a solid road game to win 3-1 at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. The Rangers let it happen because they played an indefensible home game. Pittsburgh was excellent in defending, but New York contributed with a sloppy attack.
"There are nights like that," Rangers center Derick Brassard said. "It wasn't clicking."
Over the course of an 82-game regular season, there are nights like that. A team might not play its best. A call against them might sap the energy. Getting a handle on the puck can be troublesome.
But it's hard to fathom letting that all happen in a Stanley Cup Playoff game, let alone a swing game in what is arguably the most even of the eight first-round series.
"For that [game Tuesday] night, I'm not quite sure what happened," Rangers coach Alain Vigneault said. "I believe with what's at stake here we're going to see a high compete level and a high battle level [Thursday]."
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But to win Game 4 at home on Thursday (7 p.m. ET; CNBC, SN, TVA Sports, ROOT, MSG), the Rangers are going to have to be tougher and smarter than they were in Game 3.
Let's start with their reaction to Chris Kreider's apparent first-period goal getting taken off board for offsides after Pittsburgh coach Mike Sullivan challenged the play.
The Rangers, who had 3:27 left on a power play, managed one more shot on goal during the advantage. J.T. Miller's wrist shot from the top of the left circle was turned aside by Penguins rookie goalie Matt Murray.
"When [Kreider] scored his goal, the emotion in the building and the emotion from the players was really high," Brassard said. "When that call went against us, our energy and our emotion kind of went down a bit. It was the right call, but I think it was a momentum-killer for our team. We were working, but we didn't make any plays."
It's obvious after three games that the Penguins' intention is to clog up the middle of the ice, seal off the neutral zone, and force the Rangers to beat them by giving up the puck and winning races and battles to get it back. The Rangers responded well in Game 1 but couldn't score and were burned by their mistakes in a 5-2 loss. They dominated Game 2 by dumping and chasing and hitting and retrieving and forechecking in a 4-2 win.
In Game 3, they either tried to pass or carry the puck through the maze of Pittsburgh's sticks and skates in the neutral zone. It happened over and over and over. It never worked.
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"We did a terrible job of getting through the neutral zone," Rangers center Derek Stepan said.
When they tried the dump and chase game Tuesday, they were beaten to the puck almost every time and the Penguins had an easy clear. There was no forecheck.
"It's hard to play with speed and energy when you're spending all of it on chasing it, chasing it," Brassard said. "We have to forecheck as a unit of five. It came be one, two or three guys, or having one or two guys on their heels. Everyone has to be on their toes."
Their lack of execution was never more evident in the third period, after Matt Cullen gave Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead at 4:16. The Rangers mustered two shots on goal in the final 15:44.
Vigneault mentioned their poor execution, but didn't stop there.
"There's also will and there's also compete level that goes along with that execution," Vigneault said. "Those puck battles, whether it be 5-on-5, 5-on-4, 4-on-5, that you need to get to first, [Tuesday] night we were second on a lot of those, especially in the third period. When they made it 2-1 … I didn't like how we responded after that. We should have had a push. We should have challenged them a lot more than we did. We didn't have that and we need to be better addressing that moving forward here."
Vigneault mentioned Wednesday how resilient the Rangers have been, and that's true. They are 12-4 following a playoff loss since 2014, Vigneault's first season in New York. They were 15-1-0 in games after their final 16 regulation losses during the regular season.
So, yes, it's in their DNA to raise their level to the challenge they face. The problem is, they have themselves to blame for being in this position, because as solid as the Penguins were in defending during Game 3, the Rangers should be tougher and smarter than they played.
"We're going to bounce back," Vigneault said.