Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers and Gustav Forsling...

Mika Zibanejad of the New York Rangers and Gustav Forsling of the Florida Panthers battle for the puck in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Final on Tuesday. Credit: Getty Images/Bruce Bennett

It would be overly dramatic to say the window is closing.

There is a good chance the Rangers will be a good team again next season, and probably beyond.

Their star goalie, Igor Shesterkin, is 28 and in his prime. Their star defenseman, Adam Fox, is 26 and in his prime. Their most dynamic skater in the playoffs, Alexis Lafreniere, is 22 and just now entering his prime.

Make no mistake, though: Even if the window is open, if you look through it and into the room beyond, you can make out an item on the night table.

It is a clock ticking.

The generation that came out of management’s famous 2018 warning letter to fans about a rebuild to come now is fully formed and designed to win it all.

That is what makes the stakes so high as the Rangers return to Madison Square Garden on Thursday night for Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final. Their second Stanley Cup since 1940 is nearly close enough to touch but still too far away to taste.

They are tied 2-2 with the Panthers, meaning they are six victories from the Cup, which is just where they were two seasons ago when the quest ended.

Before that, the Henrik Lundqvist-led, pre-letter 2010s Rangers got within six wins in 2012, within three in 2014 and within five in 2015 before it faded away.

Stuff happens, especially with win-now hockey rosters.

Remember the COVID-era Islanders who needed six more victories for a Cup in 2020 and five in ’21? They have not won a playoff series since.

Everyone ages. Athletes just age faster.

The list of regular-rotation Rangers forwards who will be at least 30 when next season begins includes Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Artemi Panarin, Vincent Trocheck, Barclay Goodrow, Jimmy Vesey and Alex Wennberg.

You might have read or heard that Kreider, 33, Panarin, 32, and Zibanejad, 31, three of the team’s biggest names, have combined to score as many goals in the conference final as Rangers radio analyst Dave Maloney has. And he’s 67!

Kreider and Zibanejad do not have so much as a single assist.

This train is headed in a perilous direction after the Panthers won Game 4 in overtime, 3-2, behind yet another series of dominating zone-time stretches.

The is the first NHL semifinal series since 2001 and second since 1933 to feature three consecutive overtime games, and yet in this case that makes the series sound closer than it has been.

The Panthers have looked like the significantly better team, with Shesterkin keeping the Rangers in it backed by timely goals from Lafreniere and Trocheck.

The line of Aleksander Barkov, the star Panthers center, seems to have that of Kreider and Zibanejad flustered and physically battered.

After the game and again on Wednesday, coach Peter Laviolette was blunt about the need for more effective breakouts that lead to offensive zone time.

Fox acknowledged the team is spending far too much time and energy defending. Zibanejad accepted blame for a pass that led to a turnover that led to a penalty that led to the winning goal in overtime.

Kreider tried to blame himself for pretty much everything.

It was the kind of honesty and accountability fans should expect from their top players. But what they would like even more is fixing all of the above.

It’s not over. No one would be shocked if the Rangers find a way twice more, which is what they usually do, sometimes against all analytic odds.

And two of the three potential games remaining are at the Garden, although home ice advantage has not been an advantage overall in this year’s playoffs.

But Game 4 was a reminder that living on the edge sometimes means falling off, especially when the opponent is as talented and ornery as the Panthers are. Their entire season has been built on getting back to the Final, where they lost last year to the Golden Knights, and they seem determined to make that happen.

The Rangers had best come up with a comparable sense of urgency to match that, or the next window they look into will show the Panthers waving goodbye on their way to the Final.


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