The New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins are, to say the least, acquainted with one another in the post-season. It was last year that saw the Rangers come back from a 3-1 deficit in the second round to eventually win the best-of-seven series. The Penguins were embarrassed and changed things up in the front office. Now, they’ve got another crack at it and you have to bet they’ll angling for a little sweet revenge.
The Penguins aren’t quite the stellar contenders of lore and that could make this an uphill climb. Pittsburgh needed a win on the last day of the regular season to even get into the playoffs. They were 4-9-2 in their last 15 games and scored an average of 1.67 goals per game in that drive. They aren’t entering the playoffs with a lot of momentum, that’s for sure.
The Rangers, on the other hand, won the President’s Trophy and pretty much owned the regular season. They finished the season third overall in goals per game with an average of 3.02, plus they wasted the Penguins by outscoring them 16-7 in their 2014-2015 meetings. The season series has the Rangers with the clear edge, going 3-0-1. The only Penguins win came in the shootout in November.
The story of the Penguins effectively comes down to one line, which kind of illustrates how the mighty have fallen. Sidney Crosby has centred Patric Hornqvist and Daniel Winnik on the top unit thanks to injuries to Evgeni Malkin. Crosby put up 84 points in 77 games, including 56 assists, and he’s still the top-drawer player he’s always been. Hornqvist had 25 goals in 64 games, so he certainly benefited from the bump, and Winnik secured a modest 34 points.
Of course, the Penguins will likely shuffle the deck a great deal and that top line could have a new look by Game One. Malkin’s slumping play has to be an issue and that’s going to impact the entire team. He’s been playing with David Perron, who put up 41 points in 81 games this season. Chris Kunitz has been a well-documented disappointment, but one has to imagine he could be a possibility for that second line despite a late-season demotion to the third unit.
The Rangers have a clear edge offensively and this is due in large part to their ability to roll four lines. Their depth at centre is the reason for this, with Derick Brassard holding it down on the top line with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. Nash has been particularly effective this season, putting up 42 goals in 79 games. He also fires the puck a lot, with 304 shots on goal registered. This happens because he creates space on the forecheck and capitalizes on his chances.
The second line is generally comprised of Chris Kreider and Derek Stepan with either Martin St. Louis or J.T. Miller in the open slot. St. Louis is a go-to guy in the post-season, so he should have the chance to fly in key situations. He finished the regular season with 52 points in 74 games.
Kevin Hayes is another factor for the Rangers. Along with Carl Hagelin and Miller, Hayes has been able to ramp up the puck possession game. He has 49 points in 79 games and is generally able to control the tempo of a game with his linemates, which could spell trouble for the Penguins. With Miller’s physicality in the mix, the Rangers’ “third” line is deadly.
As much as it feels wrong to rain on the Penguins, their defence is a bit of a trouble spot. They were able to hold Pittsburgh in games at times, sure, but injuries have become an issue. Kris Letang is done for the year, as is Olli Maatta. Christian Ehrhoff has been cleared for contact and is day-to-day, but that’s not exactly the best vote of confidence at the moment.
The Penguins are then left with five regular defencemen and they’ll have to get the most out of them all if they hope to hang with the Rangers. Paul Martin, Ian Cole, Ben Lovejoy, Tyler Chorney, and Rob Scuderi will be all hands on deck come Thursday night and they’ll log some serious ice time. Each played more than 20 minutes down the stretch and we all know how that worked out. At this point, it looks like either Brian Dumoulin or Scott Harrington will pull duty in the bigs.
The Rangers, meanwhile, again have the edge. Their defensive unit is big and mobile. Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, Dan Boyle, and Marc Staal will see major ice time but they’ll balance each other out. They played over 20 minutes per game in the regular season, but nobody topped out 25 minutes with any regularity and that keeps the whole unit rested and ready to go. Expect the same balance in the post-season.
Kevin Klein has been announced as unavailable for Game One and that’s a shame, but the Rangers are optimistic that he’ll be back at some point. He’s reliable at both ends of the ice. Another Ranger blueliner to keep an eye on is Keith Yandle, a March acquisition from the Arizona Coyotes. He took some time to adjust, but he’s bought in to the Rangers’ system now and could be a big help.
Marc-Andrew Fleury, despite some serious gaffes throughout his post-season history, is the Penguins’ best shot at winning this series. He again had a good regular season, finishing with 64 starts and 34 wins. His 2.32 goals against average and .920 save percentage set him up well, plus he pocketed a league-leading 10 shutouts. The Penguins have to hope he’ll hold his form in the playoffs, but history hasn’t exactly been kind.
The Rangers are in good shape in terms of goaltending and that stings. Henrik Lundqvist is expected to be in fine form and he always shows up in the playoffs. He missed seven weeks of the regular season due to injury, but he came back and looked like gold once again. King Henrik polished off the year with a 2.25 goals against average and a .922 save percentage. He also had five shutouts.
This series is lopsided on paper and for good reason. The Rangers have owned the Penguins and there’s little indication that comes to an end now. The Penguins will require superhuman performances from Crosby and Fleury and that might be a lot to ask, especially considering how deep New York is running. This could be a rough one for Pittsburgh’s fans.