Kovacevic: Finish off wretched Rangers |

Kovacevic: Finish off wretched Rangers

NEW YORK — I’d like to invest this complete column in praising the Penguins, really.

It would be easy to go on about Marc-Andre Fleury’s growing maturity, about Evgeni Malkin finding another level, about Jussi Jokinen catching nothing but touchdowns, about Paul Martin carrying an undermanned defense, about all of the good stuff that went into gutting the New York Rangers, 4-2, in Game 4 of their Stanley Cup playoff series Wednesday at Madison Square Garden.

I’d like to, but that just wouldn’t be right.

To the Rangers.

Because if there’s any undercurrent to this series that’s probably gone underappreciated, at least in Pittsburgh if not by the booing masses here, it’s this: This opponent is wretched.

But hey, don’t take my word for it. Someone asked poor Henrik Lundqvist, their only stand-up performer so far, about what’s gone wrong for his side, and his response: “I don’t know where to start.”

Who could?

I don’t like to do this. For a Pittsburgh audience, the focus is almost always on what the Pittsburgh team does right or wrong, who starred or who stunk it up.

So what to do when it’s the opponent playing the starring role by stinking it up?

Go ahead, say what you want about the Rangers being tired. This was their seventh game in 11 days. But this also was the Penguins’ fourth game in six days. And the Penguins were the team down to five defensemen when Brooks Orpik went down late in the first period.

Spare everyone the fatigue excuse, please.

“I think that factor’s leveled off, honestly,” Matt Niskanen said. “Maybe in Games 2 or 3, but not now.”

Fatigue doesn’t explain Rick Nash, the Rangers’ star in name only, still lacking a goal in these playoffs, not to mention one in 23 career postseason games since Columbus wisely shipped him to New York. Nash likes playing in big games in the same way vampires like playing with crosses.

“It’s a battle right now,” Nash said, swarmed again by a New York media increasingly fixated on his goose egg. “It’s ultra-frustrating.”

Fatigue certainly doesn’t explain Martin St. Louis, the NHL’s reigning scoring champ in name only, not putting up a solitary point in the past six games. He was a Dr. Seuss-esque giveaway machine in this one.

Fatigue does, I think, help explain the Rangers’ shutdown pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh looking as gassed as they do. Alain Vigneaut, New York’s increasingly flustered-looking coach, has had no choice but to play them until they drop.

But otherwise?

Sorry, man, Columbus at least put up a fight. When the Penguins performed as loosely as they did most of Wednesday night, the Blue Jackets made them pay. They rallied. They crashed the net. They showed passion.

This opponent achieves little more than diving to draw penalties — Broadway beckons, indeed — and spinning around in pointless circles.

Shots in this game: Penguins, 27-15.

Hits: Penguins, 29-28.

Faceoffs: Penguins, 31-18.

Giveaways: Um, Rangers, 25-8.

And I’ll remind that the visitors were a D-man down, even when New York mustered all of three shots in the third.

This series needs to end in Game 5 on Friday at Consol. It needs to end emphatically. Bob Johnson, the great coach of the Penguins’ first Cup team, used to say that all champions need at least one short series. And that’s held true all through the franchise’s three Cups, most recently the sweep of Carolina in 2009.

These Rangers aren’t worth a return trip to the Garden.

And to the Penguins’ credit, they seem to have embraced that concept right away.

“It’s an advantage you build up, and you have to take it,” Martin said. “We’ve got to come out with our very best.”

“Just get it done,” Fleury said. “That’s all I’m thinking about already.”

Matt Niskanen, as often is the case, came through with the sharpest: “You mean kick ’em when they’re down? That kind of thing? Well, their backs are against the wall. It’s going to be hard. It always is. But it’s a heck of an opportunity for us.”

In the event any extra incentive is needed, the Penguins would do well to focus on New York defenseman/headhunter/pylon-on-Jokinen’s-goal Marc Staal, who again went after Sidney Crosby’s head in third period, this time at least sparing the stick and going with the elbow. Still from behind, of course.

Trust me that the Penguins, top to bottom, are furious with Staal, as well as the NHL’s laughable inaction on his two stick assaults in Game 3. And they weren’t any happier with the sequel Wednesday.

So hey, put that to work. It might be as close as these Rangers get to inspiring anyone.

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