Playoff failure is déjà boo for Rangers


NEW YORK -- The Pittsburgh Penguins' short-handed goal was in the net, the red light was still flashing as  Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist spun out of the crease, raised his stick overhead and angrily slammed it down on the goal cage midway through the second period. And you couldn't blame him for the show of frustration.

How many times has Lundqvist seen a variation of this movie in his Rangers playoff career, in which he initially keeps the Rangers in a game but the offense is irredeemably lousy? And their power play is a joke? And the wheels just continue to fall off from there?

On Wednesday, the Rangers desperately needed to come up with the best game of their second-round series against Pittsburgh. What they threw out was their worst all-around performance instead, all but assuring their elimination with a 4-2 loss at Madison Square Garden. There wasn't an area of the game in which the Rangers outplayed the Penguins while falling into a three-games-to-one series hole.

The Penguins can end the Rangers' season when the series moves to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Friday.

Even by then, it might be hard for the Rangers to shake the stench of this one. They were so comprehensively bad, their home crowd booed them off the ice. They came into the game riding a streak of two straight games and 57 shots at Pens goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury without scoring. And they still played worse, even though they managed two goals.

The Rangers were outscored, outshot (27-15), outhit (29-28) and outdone on faceoffs (winning only 18 of 49), and their power play is now riding an 0-for-36 streak. Most damaging of all, they had 25 giveaways to just eight by the Penguins, and two of them lead directly to Pittsburgh's first two goals (including that short-hander by Brandon Sutter that made Lundqvist so angry.)

And everywhere you looked, one of the Rangers' so-called cornerstones was killing them.

Rick Nash, who is supposed to be their best offensive weapon, remained without a goal in these playoffs despite having taken a league-leading 45 postseason shots. Nash now has only one goal in his Rangers postseason career, and it's high time to question whether he's cut out for New York. In tiny Columbus, Ohio, Nash was a force. Since coming here, he disappears come springtime, and it hasn't mattered if he's playing right wing or left wing, hasn't mattered who his linemates were and it hasn't mattered if his coach is the departed taskmaster, John Tortorella, or the more affable Alain Vigneault, who went a bit over the top Wednesday night with his postgame defense of Nash.

By the time Vigneault got done talking about how "Rick is trying real hard. He's had some good looks. ... I gotta tell you, he's battling real hard," it sounded like one of those Every Kid Gets a Trophy speeches.

Vigneault finally allowed, "Obviously, Rick is feeling a lot of pressure."

No kidding. You think?

The same seems to be true of Martin St. Louis. The Rangers' schedule of six games in nine nights might have now gotten to the 38-year-old, too.

St. Louis was among the league leaders in scoring when the Rangers gave up team captain Ryan Callahan and a bounty of draft picks to get him after he demanded a trade from  Tampa Bay Lightning, and although St. Louis was good in the Rangers' opening series against the  Philadelphia Flyers, he was nearly invisible against Pittsburgh last night. He managed only one shot on goal, and it didn't come until the third period.

That was the same period in which the Rangers squandered a goal by Mats Zuccarello that narrowed the Pens' lead to 3-2 by giving up a goal to Chris Kunitz just 57 seconds later, quashing any thoughts of a comeback.

The way that goal happened was galling, too: The Pens' Evgeni Malkin set it up by beating the Rangers' Marc Staal to the puck behind the net, then holding off Staal and another Ranger with his left arm and finding Kunitz for a quick shot that deflected off Staal's skate, by Lundqvist and into the short side of the net.

Once again, Lundqvist could only slump in frustration.

Brad Richards, another Rangers forward whose best postseasons were spent somewhere else, was right when he categorically rejected the suggestion that the Penguins had more to do with the Rangers' sloppiness in Game 4 than the Rangers did.

"No," Richards insisted. "It was us."

Vigneault -- who had called Game 4 just short of a "must-win game" -- admitted it was "a bad night of the playoffs to have a bad game."

"For whatever reason tonight, our execution with the puck wasn't there," Vigneault added. "Can't explain it. Nothing we can do about it except go on to Pittsburgh and the next game."

Don't be surprised if this series doesn't come back to the Garden.

Vigeneault has now tried calling out his stars with his "Put on your big boy pants" remarks after Game 2, and he's tried massaging their bruised egos. Neither has worked.

The Rangers have gotten to another postseason in which they can't score, can't count on their stars other than Lundqvist and can't take advantage of having one of the best goaltenders in the game for yet another season.

When asked what bright spot he sees as they all now head off to Pittsburgh, Richards shrugged and said, "The positive thing, in my opinion, is we're still alive in the series."

Not for long.