Rangers need Big 3 to step up offensively before it’s too late

Had the Rangers survived Game 4 the way they managed to win Game 3 in Florida, the questions would have been very different.

If the Rangers had taken a 3-1 lead over the Panthers heading into Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals at the Garden on Thursday night, we might be wondering right now: How much better would the Blueshirts have been if their stars had scored?

Those possibilities would have been enticing, given how close the Rangers were to a Stanley Cup Final appearance (six wins, to be exact) and their first title in 30 years.

Rangers stars Mika Zibandeged (left) and Chris Kreider were each held scoreless heading into Thursday night’s Game 5 against the Panthers. Jason Senesu, New York Post

Instead, a 3-2 overtime loss in Florida on Tuesday night left the series tied at 2-2 heading into Game 5, leaving us to wonder: How much longer can the Rangers survive without the offensive power of Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanged?

This became official this series for the Rangers.

The three combined for 114 goals and 267 points during the regular season, but have a combined zero goals and three assists in the four games of this series against the Panthers.

Panthers goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky earned himself one point for the series with an assist on Tuesday night, one more than Zibanejad and Kreider combined.

Panarin, who had 49 goals and 120 points (both career highs) during the regular season, also had three assists, two of which came in Game 3.

Kreider, who had 39 goals and 75 points during the regular season, didn’t score a point in the series, as did Zibanejad, who had 26 goals and 72 points during the regular season.

Kreider has been largely unremarkable since his stunning natural hat trick in the third period of Game 6 against Carolina to lead the Blueshirts to the ECF.

But that was the last time Kreider scored.

It feels like the last time we heard Panarin play was in Carolina, when he beat the Hurricanes and scored the winning goal in overtime with an acrobatic turnaround to give the Rangers a 3-0 series lead.

That was Panarin’s final goal.

Zibanejad last scored 10 games ago, scoring twice in the first period of the Rangers’ 4-3 win over Carolina in Game 1 of the series.

Those three players have been the driving force behind the Rangers’ offense all season, but their power has run dry, leaving the Rangers in a precarious position after losing two games to the Panthers in Florida and losing momentum in the series.

Rangers star Artemi Panarin is yet to score a goal in this series against the Panthers. NHLI via Getty Images

The lack of scoring from Panarin, Kreider and Zibanejad has allowed other players like Alexis Lafreniere, Barclay Goodrow and Vincent Trocheck to score in key moments, but the Rangers need more goals if they want to advance to the next series and certainly if they want to win the Cup.

In the process, the Rangers have become dangerously over-reliant on Igor Shesterkin, a goaltender whose superpowers make one crucial stop after another. But Shesterkin’s superpowers don’t last long, as Tuesday’s loss proved.

The Rangers are in danger of squandering Shesterkin’s impressive playoff performance, mainly because their key players have been stifled offensively.

And their top line’s frustrations started to show. Kreider’s most memorable play from Tuesday night’s game was when he snatched Panthers winger Matthew Tkachuk’s mouthpiece during a brawl and hurled it toward a fan.

“I told him that was the best play of the game,” a smiling Tkachuk, known for his on-ice swearing, told reporters on Wednesday.

“Obviously, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to play,” Kreider said after Tuesday’s loss.

“We know what we have to improve,” Zibanejad said.

That means taking on Florida’s top defensive duo, Aaron Ekblad and Gustav Forsling. Of the 50 minutes and 6 seconds of ice time that Zibanejad and Kreider spent together at 5-on-5 in the first four games of the series, 30 minutes and 39 seconds were spent against Ekblad and Forsling.

During head-to-head ice time, Ekblad and Forsling had big advantages in shots (17-51), shots on goal (5-19) and scoring chances (7-20).

“They’re playing great hockey and not giving anything away to that line,” Tkachuk said of Ekblad and Forsling.

The Rangers play at home on Thursday and will have the final tool at their disposal to put players on the ice during stoppages, giving them some control over certain matchups.

But in the 10 minutes, 16 seconds of five-on-five time on the ice with Zibanejad and Kreider, the Panthers’ second unit of Brandon Montour and Niko Mikkola also had success against the duo, leading the way in shots (9-for-14), shots on goal (3-for-5) and scoring chances (3-for-7).

So it’s up to the big three to pull themselves out of this slump, regardless of who’s guarding them.

If they don’t, the Rangers’ quest to win their first Stanley Cup in 30 years may very well end before the cup is even hoisted. There’s no question about it.