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Series Preview, Round 1: Rangers vs. Penguins

Bobby Bevilacqua

rick nash goal 12-8

The Rangers and the Penguins will meet again in the postseason for the second consecutive year. This time, the Rangers look to have the advantage, with the Penguins a depleted, and seemingly weaker team than last season. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

After a crazy end to the regular season, the season closed with the Pittsburgh Penguins in the final Wild Card spot, meaning that for the second consecutive season, the Rangers and the Penguins will face off in the playoffs, this time in the first round.

Last year’s series against the Penguins was one of the most memorable in the entire postseason run for New York. After starting the series with the “double-goal” from Beniot Pouliot and Derick Brassard in overtime, the Rangers dropped the next three games, finding themselves in a 3-1 hole.

After the passing of newly acquired Martin St. Louis’ mother, France, his teammates rallied around the unfortunate tragedy. The Blueshirts won game five on the road, and came back to Madison Square Garden for Game 6 on Mother’s Day, where St. Louis scored an emotional goal en route to a win. Thanks to goals from Brad Richards and Brian Boyle in Game 7 in Pittsburgh, and a spectacular goaltending performance from Henrik Lundqvist, the Rangers completed the comeback to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

However, this year’s team is vastly different from last season’s 109 point, Metropolitan Division Champion Pittsburgh Penguins. After dealing with a mind boggling amount of injuries throughout the season, the Penguins limped through the last few months of the season, finishing with a 3-5-2 record in their last 10 games to barely clinch a playoff spot. The Penguins had a 38-18-10 record through the first 67 games, but a 4-9-2 record in the final 15 games had them barely clinging on to a playoff spot.

Pittsburgh will be without Kris Letang, Pascal Dupuis, and Olli Maata for the rest of the season, all suffering significant injuries, and leaving the Penguins thin on quality reserve players. Letang and Maata are both defensemen, which was a huge blow to an already injured defensive core. Pittsburgh also doesn’t know when Christian Ehrhoff, another defenseman, will return, as he is still dealing with concussion issues. Luckily for them, Derick Pouliot is expected to be ready for Thursday’s series opener.

The loss of Letang was absolutely devastating for Pittsburgh. Letang hasn’t had much luck with health in the past few seasons, dealing with multiple concussions and even a stroke in 2013. At the time of his injury, Letang had 11 goals and 43 assists in what could have been a Norris Trophy season for Letang. His 54 points is third on the team in scoring, and his presence on the power play, as well as solid defensive play, will be sorely missed.

kris letang

The loss of Kris Letang will hurt the Penguins severely, as they are without their top defenseman and one of their leading scorers. Photo courtesy of Gregory Shamus/Getty Images.

 

Despite all of the injuries, any team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin can still be a threat in the playoffs. Crosby had another great season, shouldering most of the offensive workload and finishing with 84 points (28-54-84) in 77 games. Malkin managed to tally 70 points (28-42-70) in 69 games this season, dealing with injury issues himself.

Crosby also enters this postseason with something he lacked during last year’s playoffs; health. Some people criticized Crosby for just one goal in 13 playoff games last year, but it was later revealed that he was playing through a wrist injury. A healthy Crosby could be trouble for the Rangers.

Given his track record in the postseason, there is reason to be skeptical of Marc-Andre Fleury in net against the high-powered offense the Rangers have. But Fleury has had a solid 2014-15 season, posting a 34-20-9 record with 10 shutouts, a 2.32 GAA and a .920 save percentage. Fleury was one of the reasons the Penguins didn’t totally collapse, and he performed well down the stretch. He’s still a question mark in net when it comes to the playoffs, but there is reason to believe that he will perform better this season.

While the Penguins slumped over the last few weeks, the Rangers cruised to a Presidents’ Trophy winning season, finishing with a 53-22-7 record, setting franchise bests in wins and points (113). Also unlike the Penguins, the Rangers are heading into this series fully healthy.

Marc Staal said in an interview that he fully expects to be at the first practice before the series starts. Rick Nash is also expected to participate in that practice. Both players missed the last two games with general wear and tear issues. Kevin Klein hasn’t played since March 11th with a broken arm, but he too is expected to be ready for Thursday’s opener.

lundqvist profile 2-2

With Henrik Lundqvist back and performing well, the Rangers are as deadly as ever, with a lot of depth, an explosive offense, and a strong defensive core. A rested Lundqvist just makes them that much better. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

Perhaps the most important player that is fully healthy for the playoffs in Henrik Lundqvist. After missing two months with a scary vascular injury, Lundqvist came back very strong. In his last six games, Lundqvist was 5-1-0 with a 1.99 GAA and a .933 save percentage. He is known to elevate his game when the team needs him most, and a healthy, well rested Henrik Lundqvist throughout the playoffs could potentially be the biggest challenge for any team to face.

New York is also one of the highest scoring teams in the league. Their 252 goals scored is third in the league, behind only the Tampa Bay Lightning (261) and the Dallas Stars (260). What makes the Rangers a complete team is the fact that they don’t allow a lot of goals either, giving up just 192 goals this season, behind only the Montreal Canadiens and the Chicago Blackhawks (189). The Rangers +60 in goal differential is the highest in the NHL, which was at least 10 points better than any other team in the league.

At the trade deadline, Rangers GM Glen Sather traded for Keith Yandle from the Arizona Coyotes, furthering bolstering an already deep defensive core. After a few weeks, Yandle settled in nicely, tallying 11 points in 21 games with New York. When all of the Rangers defensemen are healthy, it’s hard to argue against the fact that it could be the best defensive group in the NHL.

Rick Nash had one of his best seasons in the NHL, setting a new career high in goals, scoring 42, and leading the Rangers in points (69). Nash has struggled in the playoffs as a Ranger, scoring just four goals with 11 assists in 37 postseason contests with the Rangers. Although he did do a lot of the little things that helped the Rangers succeed last year, Nash is expected to score goals, and the Rangers will need him to step up in a big way.

rick nash goal celebration 2-4

Rick Nash was the Rangers’ MVP this season, leading the team in goals and points, as well as being one of the best two way players in the league. Nash will need to chip in more offensively during the playoffs this season to help the Rangers advance far. Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

 

 

As the season has gone on, the Rangers ability to roll four lines has grown into a very valuable tool for Alain Vigneault. Last year’s depth was a big reason for New York’s success, and Dominic Moore’s line will need to be strong going forward.

The Rangers have fared well against the Penguins this season, posting a 3-0-1 record, and winning both games at home. The one game they lost was the bizarre shootout, when Dan Boyle’s game winner was called back for being double contacted, and the Penguins would score to win. Otherwise, the Rangers won by scores of 5-0, 5-2, and a memorable 4-3 overtime on December 8th, which was the start of an eight game win streak. Including that game, the Rangers were 41-12-3 to close out the season.

With a pourous defense, potential goaltending issues, and a waning confidence level, the Penguins are a very fragile team. The first two games are really important. If the Rangers want to make another lengthy run, seven game series in the first two rounds need to be avoided. New York needs to take advantage of their home ice, and win the first two games, and try to close out the series in five games, something they are certainly capable of.

Below is the schedule for the series against the Penguins.

Game 1: 4/16 at 7 PM (MSG Network)

Game 2: 4/18 at 8 PM (NBC)

Game 3: 4/20 at 7 PM (MSG Network)

Game 4: 4/22 at 7 PM (MSG Network)

Game 5: 4/24 TBD

Game 6: 4/26 TBD

Game 7: 4/28 TBD

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Posted on April 12, 2015, in Rangers Updates and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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