Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette looks on during the third...

Rangers head coach Peter Laviolette looks on during the third period of Game 5 against the Florida Panthers in the Eastern Conference final at Madison Square Garden on Thursday, May 30, 2024. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

The Rangers were better, but they were not good enough.

Now their season is on the brink, requiring two consecutive victories over the Panthers to stay alive.

Impossible? Of course not. Improbable? It sure looks that way.

As they have in most of the Eastern Conference final, the Panthers looked like the better team on Thursday night in winning, 3-2, in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden.

The fact that this time the Rangers looked sharper than they had in splitting two games in Florida was small consolation, though.

For a key stretch early in the third period, the Panthers took over the game the way they had for stretches earlier in the series, and it paid off.

They broke a 1-1 tie at 10:22 when Anton Lundell scored off a three-on-two rush, firing from the left circle past the Rangers’ Braden Schneider and a screen by his teammate, Vladimir Tarasenko, and squeezed the puck past Igor Shesterkin.

It was an appropriate exclamation point to what had gone on to that point in the final period.

“Our game got simpler in the third period, and that was the key to it,” Panthers coach Paul Maurice said.

Said the Rangers’ Adam Fox, “It’s not the way you want to come out for the third period, 1-1 at home.”

No, it was not.

But again, the Rangers had been pretty good to that point, particularly in the first period, when they looked like the team that won the Presidents’ Trophy.

If this were earlier in the playoffs or earlier in this series, that would be a good thing. The problem for the Rangers is that this is no time for gold stars for improvement.

The Panthers need to win either in Sunrise, Florida, on Saturday or back at the Garden for a Game 7 on Monday, if necessary. The Rangers must win both.

“We’ve responded well all year to situations,” Fox said. “Obviously, season on the line going there. Just need to get the win there.”

So much had been going right for the Rangers in Game 5.

They figured out how to get out of their own zone against Florida.

They got a long-awaited goal from Chris Kreider, a shorthanded one to open the scoring, on an assist from Mike Zibanejad. To that point, both stars had not had a single point in the series.

But a defensive breakdown allowed Gustav Forsling to tie it late in the second period, then Lundell scored and they added an empty netter to make it 3-1 before Alexis Lafreniere got the Rangers back within one in the final minute.

“We had some good looks and some rebounds,” captain Jacob Trouba said. “We have to find a way to get a couple more past them.

“Just a little bit off. That’s the difference. They played a good game as well. It’s not always things that we’re not doing. I think they do some things really well. I thought we generated a couple of looks. Theirs went in.”

Said Fox, “I think the way we played in the first [period], we have to try to play like that every period. But they’re also a good team. They’re going to get pucks in and get in on the forecheck and get chances.”

Zibanejad admitted the Rangers struggled to get out of their own zone early in the third, but he added, “I thought we had some chances to make it 2-1 before that happened.”

Fox said the Rangers need to get a higher volume of shots at Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky.

“We want to get attempts and look for maybe a lit bit more quantity, too, as opposed to just quality,” Fox said.

The Rangers did not have enough of either. They were outshot, 37-27, including 29-16 in the final two periods.

It has been an interesting series, certainly, with Thursday night ending a streak of three consecutive overtime games.

The series features big stars on both sides and what most consider the two best teams in the Eastern Conference.

It’s been fun on multiple levels, from fans of hockey analytics to those who favor Xs-and-Os strategy to those who enjoy good, old-fashioned animosity.

But it is close to over now. If the Rangers hope to prove at last that they deserve to advance, there is no more time – and no more games – to lose.

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