Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers allows a goal on a...

Sergei Bobrovsky of the Panthers allows a goal on a shot by Vincent Trocheck (not pictured) of the New York Rangers as Chris Kreider reacts during the first period in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Final of the 2024 Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amerant Bank Arena on Tuesday in Sunrise, Fla. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

SUNRISE, Fla. — The Rangers were good enough this season to win the Presidents’ Trophy, to sweep a first-round playoff series, to oust the formidable Hurricanes in six games and then to take a 2-1 series lead in the Eastern Conference final.

But to win the six more games required to secure the Stanley Cup, they are going to have to be better than this.

Much better.

On Tuesday night, their habit of pulling unlikely victories out of a hat ran into reality in the form of a Panthers team that finally made them pay for their lapses.

These were the Panthers we thought they were, a deep, tough opponent that is a formidable checkpoint on the Rangers’ road to the Cup.

To the surprise of no one, they bounced back from a deflating loss in Game 3 to take Game 4, 3-2 in overtime, at Amerant Bank Arena.

Sam Reinhart scored the game-winner with a man advantage at 1:12 of the teams’ third consecutive overtime decider off a feed from Aleksander Barkov.

The power play was the result of a hooking penalty by Blake Wheeler on a Barkov semi-breakaway that resulted from a turnover by Mika Zibanejad.

It was a downer of a finish for Wheeler, who was making his first appearance since suffering a major leg injury on Feb. 15.

Having him on the ice at the start of overtime was asking a lot of him. But he was hung out to dry by Zibanejad’s lazy pass, with no choice but to hook Barkov.

Back to Game 5: In theory, this is as it should be.

This battle between the two best teams in the conference now will be decided in a best-of-three series, with two scheduled for Madison Square Garden.

But the Panthers will be the clear favorite.

Between now and Game 5 on Thursday night, the Rangers must figure out a way to spend less time defending, more time advancing the puck and not relying so much on the heroics of goaltender Igor Shesterkin

Some of their alarming statistical deficiencies continue to make hockey analytics geeks gag and wonder how they got this far. The Panthers outshot them 29-10 in the second, third and overtime periods on Tuesday.

In Game 3, the Panthers dominated the third period but lost in overtime. In Game 4, they dominated the second period but won in overtime.

“A bit too much defending,” Adam Fox said in an understatement. “They come at you in waves. I thought we defended hard.”

They did defend hard, but they have had way too much practice at that. The idea is to escape their end more often and generate some consistent offense.

“Once a team gets that cycle going you get a lot more worn-down defending than when you’re in the O-zone,” Fox said. “Definitely have to be a bit more possessive in the offensive zone and wear them down a bit.”

After a good first period, Jacob Trouba said, the Rangers were “kind of defensive and more on our heels the rest of the game.”

They allowed two power-play goals and another that came just after a power play ended.

The Rangers’ two goals came from Vincent Trocheck and Alexis Lafreniere, who have been their best non-goalies in the playoffs.

But linemates Zibanejad and Chris Kreider now are without a point in the series and getting increasingly frustrated.

Kreider beat himself up verbally, saying he “singlehandedly” derailed several possessions in the offensive zone.

Regarding his line in general, he said, “We've got to do a better job of advancing pucks up the ice and establishing O-zone presence. A lot of that falls on me.”

Had the Rangers won another game in which they were outplayed for large stretches, the Panthers might have thrown up their hands and thrown in the towel.

But Barkov said the idea was “just keep working hard, never get frustrated . . . It’s going to come eventually.”

It did.

Now that the Rangers’ magic act is over, they can focus on getting down to the business of figuring out how to get out of their defensive zone on a regular basis.

If they do not, their trip back here for Game 6 this weekend might be their last.


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