It’s playoff time again, which means it’s also time for our Breaking It Down series. That’s where I – and I alone – take a look at the post-season matchups and provide is a snapshot of the action to come. This edition features a look at the matchup between the Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers. Game One is on Wednesday.
By now, a Rangers/Penguins series is just kind of expected. This marks the third year in a row that the division rivals will duke it out in the post-season. These two teams are familiar with each other and they know the terrain. And if the division means anything, fortune could favour the Penguins. They’ve gone 19-9-2 against the Metropolitan Division this season, which is a big step up from last season’s 9-17-4 run.
Injuries plague both teams, unfortunately, and that could temper the matchups a fair bit. The Rangers are without captain Ryan McDonagh, sidelined with a hand injury, and Rick Nash hasn’t been the same since bruising a bone. The Penguins are without Evgeni Malkin and starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, although the latter could be back in the fold before long.
Fleury playoff struggles are still the stuff of hockey talk in many circles, but the 31-year-old is still a reliable netminder. He went 35-17-6 this season with a 2.29 goals against average and a .921 save percentage. He had five shutouts. His second concussion of the season could prove troublesome, however, which would put redemption for last year’s collapse on the back burner. If Fleury’s out, Pittsburgh will look to Matt Murray – if he’s okay after leaving Saturday’s game following a collision with Brayden Schenn.
Henrik Lundqvist is still the man of the hour for the Rangers, even if his totals were less than stellar this season. He posted a 35-21-7 record, but his 2.48 goals against average was a career-worst and his .920 save percentage wasn’t much better by his standards. He still put up four shutouts, but he’s looked sharper and was recently yanked against the Islanders after allowing three goals in 16 shots. That said, King Henrik has a tendency to come alive in the playoffs. The Rangers are banking on it.
Defensively, the Rangers have seen better days. They’ve proven rather porous this season, allowing 217 goals against, and they’ll have to come together to handle Pittsburgh’s flying offensive unit. This is where the injury to McDonagh stings the most. It’s also where Dan Girardi needs to step things up, but he could be going through injury woes of his own. That leaves Kevin Klein, Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle, and Marc Staal to shoulder the load. Dylan McIlrath and Brady Skjei could also see some action.
Kris Letang has been dynamite for the Penguins, averaging nearly 27 minutes of ice time a game. Sometimes he even surpasses that, like when he logged over 35 minutes against the Sabres just a little while ago. Letang has found balance without Olli Maatta as his defensive partner, which speaks to his versatility. He’s worked with Trevor Daley as of late, but Maatta could put things back to normal in short order. Also, the third pairing has brought new life out of Ian Cole. So there’s that.
After a slow start, the Penguins are back. Sidney Crosby overcame the worst start in his career to land with an 85-point season in 80 games. He’s had to adjust to life without Malkin, who may be out for a while longer. Luckily, Sid’s found the magic and Nick Bonino has found life in Malkin’s spot. He’s playing between Carl Hagelin and Phil Kessel, which has rejuvenated the players and contributed to some offensive chances.
Everyone expects the Rangers to be solid down the middle and this year is no different. Derick Brassard is coming off one of his best seasons, while Derek Stepan put up 22 goals and is really firing the puck. Eric Staal slots in as the third line centre, if you can believe it, with Kevin Hayes potentially challenging him for the spot. And there’s Dominic Moore, a solid and defensively-sound fourth line pivot. Throw in a well-balanced group on the wings and New York looks mighty fine up front.
Up front, these two teams are capable of some serious fireworks. The Rangers are big and fast and can roll four lines when they need to. And the Penguins are dangerous, especially now that head coach Mike Sullivan has them working the right system. Pittsburgh has proven an ability to come from behind, too, which will only aid them in overcoming any early New York rallies.
A lot is riding on how much hockey the Penguins can get out of Fleury. If he’s ready to go sooner rather than later, they’ll have some much-needed stability to work from. But they’re defensively tight enough to weather the storm, even if they have to rely on Wilkes Barre/Scranton’s Tristan Jarry and Jeff Zatkoff.
With these factors in mind, I’m entirely comfortable spying a Pittsburgh Penguins win in six games.