In a contest that was as must-win as a non-elimination game could be, the Pittsburgh Penguins came out Wednesday and decisively won the first period of Game 4 over the New York Rangers. Patric Hornqvist opened the scoring just 2:22 in and the Penguins played with energy and authority as they built an 8-2 edge in shots.

“I think we just got to our game plan right away,” defenseman Taylor Chorney said. “The previous few games, it took us a little while to establish exactly what we wanted to do. Tonight we did a good job of keeping it simple through the neutral zone, getting the puck deep, grinding down low, and we were able to create some scoring chances and capitalize on one.”

After stressing the importance of putting in a 60-minute effort, though, the Penguins couldn’t find a way to convert any more of their first-period chances into goals, then were outplayed by the Rangers in the second, a period that ended with Derick Brassard crashing the net to shove a rebound past Penguins netminder Marc-Andre Fleury and tie the game at 1-1.

A largely uneventful third period for both teams ended with what was nearly the game-winner for Pittsburgh, as Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist came out of his net to play a shot from Hornqvist with about 40 seconds remaining. The shot ended up near the goal line with Lundqvist still far out of the crease, and defenseman Dan Girardi swooped in to clear it out of danger.

“You could feel the energy; everyone got pretty excited,” Chorney said. “It would’ve been real nice if we could’ve capitalized right there. Horny was flying all night, getting in front of the net; he’s been doing it all series. Just one of those things that didn’t bounce our way.”

The clubs then headed to an overtime that would decide whether the Penguins were still in the series or on the verge of becoming the easy out most predicted this spring. And it took rookie Kevin Hayes 3:14 into the extra frame to convert a scramble around the net into his first career playoff goal, giving the Rangers a 2-1 win and 3-1 stranglehold on the series.

“We did some good things and, obviously, it was a tight game,” said captain Sidney Crosby, “But whoever gets the last goal wins, and they got it.”

“It’s disappointing,” Fleury said. “We played a solid game at home in front of our fans; it’s a tough one to lose like that.”

Fleury, for one, deserved better, as he has all series, from a team that has left him with no margin for error.

All four games have been decided by a single goal, and it’s not a coincidence that the Penguins’ lone, 4-3 win in Game 2 saw an offensive output of more than one. The Rangers’ three wins have all been by the same, 2-1 score as they’ve successfully contained Pittsburgh’s star forwards and exploited a defense that’s missing four regulars – including the ones best suited to help with the Penguins’ transition game – and played lots of extra minutes down the stretch.

At this point of the series, the Penguins simply look overmatched and out of gas against the faster, deeper Rangers.

“It’s tough; there’s not a ton of room out there,” Chorney said. “I think both teams are playing very well-positioned and everyone’s backtracking hard; there’s not a ton of opportunities.”

Game 5 is Friday in New York, where the Penguins hope to generate more opportunities and extend the series by playing a simpler road game.

“I don’t think our game plan is going to change a ton, but we’ve obviously got to turn up the desperation,” Chorney said. “Every shift’s huge; every play’s huge. You can’t necessarily be afraid to make mistakes. We’ve got to find a way to create more scoring chances, be smart with the puck through the neutral zone, get the puck deep, keep grinding, try to create offense that way.”

“We should be loose and going after it; you don’t want to be tentative in games like that,” Crosby said. “You’ve got to leave it all out there. We’ll take some things from this game and make sure that we’re desperate. That’s really the only thing you can do – go out there, be desperate and bring it back here.”

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