NEW YORK - Alain Vigneault didn’t want to say those words that hockey coaches don’t like to utter.
The New York Rangers coach came close, though.
“Tonight’s game, for us, is as close to a must-(win) game in my estimation,” Vigneault said.
“We’re down two games to one here. We need to win tonight.”
The Rangers trail the Pittsburgh Penguins in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference semifinal with Game 4 at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.
Desperate for a goal after being shut out in consecutive playoff games for the first time since 1937, the Rangers could have forward Chris Kreider in the lineup.
Kreider has missed the past 19 games after suffering a hand injury in a game against Columbus in March. Kreider, who had 17 goals during the regular season, has been medically cleared to play, Vigneault said following the morning skate.
“You want to be in this time of year,” the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Kreider said. “You play the entire regular season so you can make the playoffs and in the playoffs. It’s not easy.”
A Kreider appearance in the New York lineup could provide a boost to a power play that needs a charge badly. The Rangers haven’t scored in 34 consecutive opportunities with the man advantage, a slump that would put any team in a difficult spot considering the importance of special teams during the playoffs.
In the regular season, Kreider had six power-play goals, which was second on the Rangers. Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot each had seven power-play goals.
“(The Philadelphia) Flyers really came hard at us (in the first round) and shook our confidence a little bit and now it’s in our heads,” Brassard said. “As soon as we score the first power-play goal, everything is going to get back to where it needs to be.”
Of course, Rick Nash needs to score. Nash does that plenty in the regular season — he’s the only current NHL player with a streak of 10 consecutive seasons in which he has scored at least 20 goals — but has just two goals in 26 career playoff games and none in his past 13.
As much as the Penguins are glad to be in a position to take a 3-1 series lead back to Pittsburgh for Game 5 on Friday night, they’re of the mind they can’t afford another 15-shot effort like they had in Game 3. Without the stellar play of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, who made 35 saves in a 2-0 win, the Penguins likely would have lost.
“The start will be really important,” captain Sidney Crosby said. “They will be desperate, and we have to prove we can play a desperate game. We were probably lucky to come out with the win (in Game 3). We want to make sure we have a better game tonight.”
Penguins defenceman Brooks Orpik participated in the morning skate, but there was no update on the defenceman’s health. Orpik has missed the past five games with an undisclosed injury.
Penguins coach Dan Bylsma was asked whether it was an upper-body or lower-body injury keeping Orpik out.
“Make it up,” Bylsma said. “I won’t hold it against you.”
The Rangers hope that a day off from the rink will be as much of a benefit as a return by Kreider could be. After playing six games in nine nights, the Rangers gave their brains and bodies and break from hockey on Tuesday.
“It was very good, body-wise and mentally,” forward Brad Richards said. “The ups and downs of playoffs are pretty emotional, and coming off an emotional win-one, lose-one (series) against Philly and jump right in against Pittsburgh, three games went by so quick.
“It was good and get a day to get your mind off what just happened in the last two weeks.”
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