NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers were 60 minutes from extinction when Game 4 of their second-round playoff series began.
They knew it.
More important, they played like they knew it.
The Penguins, conversely, played like a team that had its edge and senses dulled by winning the first three games of the series.
Understandable, perhaps, but not relevant anymore, now that the Rangers have sliced their advantage to 3-1 with a 3-0 victory at Madison Square Garden last night.
"We weren't sharp, and it showed," left winger Jarkko Ruutu said. "We didn't deserve to win."
The loss ended the Penguins' run of seven consecutive victories and cost them an opportunity to clinch a berth in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since 2001.
They still can do that by winning Game 5, which will be played at 2:08 p.m. Sunday at Mellon Arena.
Penguins center Max Talbot sat out Game 4 because of a broken right foot; his place in the lineup was taken by left winger Gary Roberts.
The Penguins were missing more than just Talbot, though. The urgency and efficiency they have shown so often this spring weren't visible for much of the evening.
They were sloppy and not opportunistic. They conceded territory and scoring chances too easily and often and couldn't capitalize on the ones they created.
"For whatever reason, we didn't play the way we used to play, the first three games," Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar said. "We turned the puck over a lot. I don't know. Maybe it's a lack of experience."
The Penguins failed to get any of their 29 shots past Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, while Jaromir Jagr gave New York the only goal it needed with a nasty wrist shot from high in the left circle at 12:45 of the second period.
Jagr added an empty-netter with 13.6 seconds to play, providing the bookends for a power-play goal by linemate Brandon Dubinsky 44 seconds into the third.
"He's a driven man right now," Rangers coach Tom Renney said. "There's no question about it."
Lundqvist seemed pretty motivated, too. After being outplayed for most of the series by Marc-Andre Fleury of the Penguins, Lundqvist produced an exceptional effort.
The twist is that what should have been one of his most difficult stops -- a penalty shot by Evgeni Malkin at 17:53 of the second -- proved to be one of the easiest.
Malkin was awarded a penalty shot when Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi grabbed him from behind as he prepared to shoot on a breakaway made possible by a lead pass from Sidney Crosby.
Malkin subsequently crashed into Lundqvist and the net, but a video review determined the puck, which followed him in, didn't get across the goal line until the net had been dislodged. Too bad for the Penguins, because that came a lot closer to yielding a goal than Malkin's rather mystifying penalty shot.
After collecting the puck at center ice, Malkin moved down the right side, then coasted into the slot and had all but shifted into slow-motion when he threw a wrist shot into Lundqvist's glove from just below the hash marks.
Heck of a shot, if Malkin was trying to prove he could hit Lundqvist squarely in the glove. Otherwise, not so much.
Malkin actually came much closer to getting a goal when Lundqvist had to stop him near the left post two minutes into the second period. Ryan Malone had a couple of stellar chances, too, but Lundqvist denied him on a short-handed breakaway at 15:36 of the second and from point-blank range at 7:13 of the third.
"Lundqvist was very strong," Penguins right winger Marian Hossa said.
While Lundqvist was giving the Penguins nothing, they were being considerably more generous with his teammates.
"We gave them a lot of chances by playing bad in the neutral zone, turning the puck over," Gonchar said. "We created a lot of offense for them."
That happened to the Penguins several times over the course of the regular season. As a rule, they didn't allow it to become a habit, which might bode well for them in Game 5.
"We had a couple of sloppy games during the year," Ruutu said. "And we usually answer pretty good."
Dave Molinari can be reached at DWMolinari@Yahoo.com . First Published May 2, 2008 4:00 AM