PITTSBURGH - In his first NHL season out of Boston College, center Kevin Hayes was a pleasant surprise, giving the Rangers size and skill in the middle and scoring 17 goals and 45 points, most of them in the second half of the season.
But Hayes had struggled in the first three games of the playoffs, not finding the scoresheet, with just six shots on goal, and winning just 11 of 29 faceoffs. In Game 2, a 4-3 loss Saturday at Madison Square Garden, his hooking penalty in the third period led to Chris Kunitz's winning goal for the Penguins.
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Wednesday night, however, Hayes scored the biggest goal of his promising career at 3:14 of overtime at the left post, lifting a puck that had slid under a prone Marc-Andre Fleury for a 2-1 win that gave the Rangers a commanding 3-1 lead in the best-of-seven series.
Game 5 is tomorrow night at the Garden.
"It was his best game of this series," coach Alain Vigneault said. "We need him to play the way he has throughout the year. It's playoff hockey and a bigger stage; he's learning how to deal with it with the help of his teammates. Tonight he scored a big goal and I'm hoping that's going to help his confidence."
Hayes, who had three shots stopped by Fleury, including an open look in the second period, was frustrated.
"I thought I had some good chances tonight," he said. "But I couldn't capitalize until the end. My two linemates [Marty St. Louis and Carl Hagelin] worked hard to get the puck to the net and it ended up on my stick."
Hayes' goal -- the first overtime goal on the road by a Rangers rookie -- gave the Blueshirts their first playoff overtime win on the road since Game 1 of last year's second-round series against the Penguins when Derick Brassard scored at 3:06. It capped a slow-but-sure comeback after a dismal first period.
Patric Hornqvist deflected a shot past Henrik Lundqvist at 2:22 as the Penguins outplayed the Rangers, allowing just two shots on Fleury in the first 20 minutes.
"Their forechecking was extremely hard," Marc Staal said. "The whole first period we weren't very good. We were fortunate to be down just 1-0. [Vigneault] came in after the first and let us have it pretty good. It was a wake-up call."
In his postgame remarks, Vigneault denied that there was any unusual fire and brimstone, but the Rangers turned the tide in the second, controlling the puck far more than in the first, regaining the territorial edge and outshooting the Penguins 12-8.
The Blueshirts had numerous chances -- from Chris Kreider, St. Louis, Matt Hunwick and Dan Boyle -- that either missed wide or Fleury stopped. Brassard finally tied the score with his third goal of the series with 2:45 left, jamming in a loose puck at the right post. The assists went to Rick Nash and Ryan McDonagh, but Mats Zuccarello's pass set it all up.
With about five minutes left in regulation, Fleury stoned Nash from about 20 feet away, then Brassard found Zuccarello on a two-on-one but he couldn't get a shot off. Dan Girardi saved a goal with 35 seconds left, clearing a puck that was heading toward the goal line with Lundqvist out of position.
"We had some guys who made some big plays in the end, so it feels really good," said Lundqvist, who made 22 saves and has allowed just seven goals in four playoff games.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, teams that have gone up 3-1 in a best-of-seven Stanley Cup playoff series win the series 90.2 percent of the time (249-27).
Lundqvist, however, remained wary of the Penguins.
"It's desperation mode for them," Lundqvist said. "You have to grab every opportunity you get to finish the series. You can't just think you have more chances. You have to go for it and match their desperation. Every game has been decided by one goal. It's not going to be easy.