PITTSBURGH — In the safe, supportive confines of Madison Square Garden, where fans in red, white and blue jerseys romp and rollick in support of their favorite hockey team, the Rangers looked decent, even formidable at times, in their first two N.H.L. playoff games.
In Pittsburgh, where the atmosphere was decidedly more heated, hostile and loud, they looked like something else, something that prompted Gerard Gallant, their coach, to hurl one of the most offensive four-letter words in hockey toward his players.
“We were soft all over the ice,” Gallant said.
Gallant went on to use the term “soft” four more times in a two-and-a-half minute interview after the Pittsburgh Penguins’ 7-2 win over the Rangers in a baffling — for New York — Game 4 of their first-round playoff matchup.
“We were not committed to playing the right way,” Gallant said. “We played the right way in New York. There was no reason we couldn’t play the right way tonight.”
As the series returns to Madison Square Garden for Game 5 on Wednesday with the Rangers’ season on the verge of ending, it is incumbent on Gallant and the veteran players the coach trusts so much, to correct whatever caused the lifeless effort on Monday.
Perhaps playing at home will solve the problem, but if the Rangers need to be at home to win, then they are in even bigger trouble.
The Penguins are led, not surprisingly, by their superstar captain and three-time Stanley Cup champion Sidney Crosby. He has played brilliantly, with two goals and seven assists in the series, as the Penguins have rallied behind Louis Domingue, their third-string goalie. They need to win only one of the next three games to advance to the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2018.
Or the Rangers can heed Gallant’s pointed criticism and play the right way, once again. That would mean rediscovering the form they displayed in the first two games of this series, or over the final two months of the regular season.
But in Game 4, the Rangers looked alarmingly listless, reverting to some of the sloppy play that characterized the early part of the season. Back then, the only thing covering up for their defensive miscues was the brilliant play of Igor Shesterkin.
That is no longer a premise upon which the Rangers can rely.
Shesterkin may be the front-runner for the Vezina trophy for the league’s best goalie in the regular season, recording a 2.07 goals against average and .935 save percentage, both tops among goalies with more than 10 starts. But in the two playoff games in Pittsburgh — the first playoff games of his career in front of hostile fans — he allowed 10 goals on 45 shots over three periods.
The Pittsburgh fans rode him hard in both games, taunting him with chants of “Eeee-gor. Eeee-gor.”
Shesterkin is not the direct cause of the Rangers’ sudden decline, but he has not been nearly as dominant as he was in the regular season, and has been unable to bail his teammates out, as he did so often for months.
Gallant pulled Shesterkin from both losses in Pittsburgh, which does not give Rangers fans a comforting feeling as they look ahead. The backup, Alexandar Georgiev, played the same number of periods (three) as Shesterkin in the two games in Pittsburgh and allowed only two goals on 31 shots.
But Gallant eliminated the possibility of a goalie controversy by declaring that Shesterkin would be back in the crease on Wednesday. His defense for that decision required only five words.
“Best goalie in the league,” Gallant said.
He also emphasized that three of the goals on Monday were tipped in, relieving some of the blame from Shesterkin. But no matter how many pucks are tipped into the net, or how often goalies are screened and unable to see the incoming shot, they detest being scored upon, often taking it personally, and Shesterkin seemed rattled.
After the Penguins’ sixth goal, a redirected shot that Jeff Carter deflected down between the pads, Shesterkin skated out of the goal mouth to his left in frustration, his head tilted back as if he were rolling his eyes skyward over the onslaught. It was the fifth goal he had allowed in the period.
Even as he sat on the bench for the third period, the Pittsburgh fans did not relent, mercilessly chanting, “We want Igor.”
The Penguins, of course, played a role in stripping away Shesterkin’s veil of near invincibility. With Crosby and the rest of the Penguins skating hard toward the net at every opportunity, pushing sticks and bodies in Shesterkin’s way and then firing pucks into the fray, the Penguins have made life difficult for the 26-year-old goalie.
“We are competing hard at the net front,” said Crosby, who scored once, assisted twice in Game 4 and at times has skated circles around Rangers defenders.
Mike Sullivan, the Penguins coach, noted that every team hopes to get players and pucks toward the opposing goal, and said it was a particular point of emphasis for his team, too.
“It’s an important aspect of trying to score goals in today’s N.H.L.,” Sullivan said. “The goalies are too good and we are playing against one of the best.”
There will be no change in strategy for the Penguins in Game 5. It will be up to the Rangers to clear out in front of their own goal and provide a stern commitment in front of Shesterkin.
Jacob Trouba, the Rangers defenseman, said the fault in Game 4 was on the skaters, not the goalie, and he insisted the team would do much better on Wednesday, at home.
“We feel that we are ready to play, and we feel we can play with that team,” he said. “Like I said, we’re going to come to Game 5 and be ready to play and win that game.”