Mueller: Battle-hardened Penguins teach Shesterkin, Rangers a playoff lesson

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It all started with a near miss, an opportunity lost, just barely.

Jason Zucker and Jeff Carter combined on a beautiful scoring chance early in the second period of Game 4, which was at that point deadlocked at one apiece. Carter walked in all alone, opened the five hole on Igor Shesterkin and…hit the post.

The crowd thought the puck was in. The Penguins thought it was in. Shesterkin and his Rangers teammates seemed to agree. Only the referee seemed to realize that the post had denied Carter’s effort, and belatedly, play continued.

For Shesterkin and the Rangers, the respite was brief.

Shesterkin is going to win the Vezina Trophy in a runaway this year, but he could do nothing to stop a five-goal avalanche in the second period by a Penguins team that turned in a signature performance, not just for these playoffs, but for the entire season, en route to a 7-2 win and a 3-1 series lead.

Mike Matheson’s go-ahead goal went in at 3:14 of the second period. Jake Guentzel’s tally, his fifth of the playoffs and what would turn out to be the game-winner came 24 seconds later. Mark Friedman – Mark Friedman! – added his first-ever playoff goal some eight minutes later. Then, after the Rangers showed brief signs of life on a power-play goal that went off of Matheson’s skate, the Penguins showed killer instinct when Danton Heinen and Jeff Carter scored 35 seconds apart in the waning moments of the period.

The explosive outburst came in three separate acts, but we’ve seen the Penguins do this before. They’re eminently capable of creating the kind of sudden, pyrotechnic offensive displays that would make the folks at Zambelli blush; we saw as much in the first period of Game 3.

What made Game 4 different, and what makes me think that the Rangers are in trouble every bit as deep as their series deficit would suggest, is that the Penguins never took their foot off the gas pedal. They learned from what happened on Saturday and never let New York get any momentum, or get back in the game.

Gerard Gallant’s team didn’t exactly show the kind of fight typical of the playoffs, either. There were no real scrums, no liberties being taken, no sign that anyone on the Rangers had a pulse. All the bravado they came out with in the violent, frenzied first period of this series has evaporated. In its place seems a sort of confused resignation.

Shesterkin, their trump card all year, has been broken by the Penguins’ onslaught. His waving taunts after a 3-0 shutout of the Penguins barely a month ago seem like a distant memory. A raucous crowd taunted him by chanting his first name when things went bad, then added some salt to the wound by belting out a chorus of “we want Igor” once he was mercifully yanked from the game.

New York looks for all the world like a boxer on a knockout streak who finally runs into a fighter that isn’t afraid, and hits back. What makes this so surprising is that the Penguins played the role of punching bag against the Rangers late in the regular season. The narrative that the Penguins’ postseason experience would pay dividends against the talented-but-callow Rangers, something that seemed more like wishful thinking than anything, has turned out to be true.

The fourth win is the hardest, of course, and the Penguins still haven’t gotten it. They’ve also blown a 3-1 series lead against the Rangers before, so no one should be getting overconfident just yet. Moreover, while cult hero Louis Domingue was plenty good in Game 4, he was barely tested, thanks to the Penguins’ territorial dominance. The more I’ve watched him, the more I’ve seen some cracks. His puck tracking leaves much to be desired, and his best work was in relief in Game 1; eventually, a team is going to solve him.

All of those factors put the onus on the Penguins to stomp out the remaining life the Rangers have left, and to do it in short order. When this series started, plenty of onlookers expected New York to deliver a knockout that ended the Crosby-Malkin era.

Now, though? Now the once-confident Rangers and their star goalie are against the ropes. And if Game 4 taught us anything about these Penguins, it is this: If they get a chance to land a finishing blow, they’re not going to miss.

This article originally appeared on Beaver County Times: Mueller: Battle-hardened Penguins teach Shesterkin, Rangers a playoff lesson