Know the foe: Pittsburgh Penguins
Next up in our “know the foe series:” the hottest team in the NHL, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
With just four regular season games remaining for the 2015-2016 New York Rangers, playoff matchups are still a bit cloudy. If there is a team we’d call the frontrunner for the Rangers to face in the first round as things currently stand, the Penguins would be the winner.
This certainly isn’t a blessing, though. Pittsburgh has taken off since they fired Mike Johnston and hired Mike Sullivan, former Rangers assistant under John Tortorella. Sullivan’s Penguins remind me a lot of the ’13-’14 Rangers: plenty of speed on the wing and star players that have been rejuvenated by a new system and a fresh start. The Penguins lead the NHL in just about every offensive category since Sullivan took over on Dec. 12, including an NHL high 3.46 goals per game in that span.
They also have been particularly impressive defensively. They boast the NHL’s best record when leading after two periods, going 26-0-0 to this point in the season. This is something we’re used to seeing the Rangers do. Marc-Andre Fleury has been nothing short of impressive, boasting a .921 save percentage in all situations and save been really good at even strength, saving over 94% of shots faced. If there’s a team you wouldn’t want to face in the east right now, it’s the Pens.
The Rangers have had recent success in the post season against Crosby and company, having beaten them two years in a row. After being down 3-1 in 2014, the Rangers won three straight including a 2-1 game seven win on the back of a strong performance by Henrik Lundqvist. Last season, an injury riddled Penguins team managed to keep every game close but lost 4-1 to the Presidents’ Trophy winning Rangers. That series was capped off by a Carl Hagelin OT winner in game five that sent Pittsburgh packing. Hagelin potentially will be looking to make the Rangers regret trading him.
Hagelin is the exact type of player that Pittsburgh has added this season to sure up their game speed and tempo. It was on display last week when the Rangers succumbed to the division foe 3-2 in overtime, on home ice. Hagelin’s line, which also features Nick Bonino and speedy goal scorer Phil Kessel on the wing, was all over the place in the Easter Sunday matchup—and played a big part in the Pittsburgh W.
The Penguins are a sleeping giant. At one point, the road to the Stanley Cup in the Eastern Conference ran through Pittsburgh. After back to back visits to the Finals under Dan Bylsma, Pittsburgh lost its mojo somewhere along the way. Fleury was dubbed as one of the worst starters in the league, especially after they suffered a playoff series loss at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers where the final box scores looked more like lacrosse games than hockey games. Since those Stanley Cup runs, the Penguins have fallen off. It’s strange when you consider two of the top five players in the world in Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are in their lineup. Former GM Ray Shero and more recently Mike Johnston lost their jobs as a result.
On the back of Crosby– who by the way is STILL the best player in the world– the Penguins are looking to get back into the Stanley Cup conversation. After a 12-4-0 record in the month of March, they’re primed to do just that. This is a bad matchup for the Rangers.
As we’ve seen in a couple of their recent matchups, the Penguins speed on the outside is too much for the slower parts of the Rangers defense to handle. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Dan Boyle will struggle in a seven game series against the Pens. They’ve gotten to Henrik Lundqvist and induced visible frustration from the Swede.
If there’s a bright spot to facing Pittsburgh, it’s that they’ll be without Evgeni Malkin and Olli Maatta for the foreseeable future due to injury. They are slated to return at some point in the playoffs, although when exactly that will be remains unclear. Still, any team featuring Crosby and the hot as fire Phil Kessel is a less than ideal matchup.
Sidney Crosby is on his way to yet another point per game season. Crosby scored the game winner in OT on Easter Sunday and has been the Penguins go to guy this season, as he has been for his whole career. With Malkin missing over 20 games due to injury, Sid has had to be Sid, and he has been. Crosby ranks third in the NHL in total points and is tied for fifth in assists. He is the gold standard for the center position in the NHL and will be a potential pain for the Rangers to play against.
Kris Letang has been rock-solid for the Penguins from the back end this season. Letang is second on the team in points and assists, but has really picked it up recently. Tanger leads all defenseman in points in the last 25 games. It would be a feel good story if he wasn’t a hated division rival considering his scary injury history. From a puck movement and shot suppression standpoint, Letang is as good as any defenseman in the NHL right now.
The Penguins wingers will be licking their chops if they get to face Marc Staal and Dan Girardi in round one. Their speed and perfection of lob passes from the defensive zone has been particularly impressive. Leading the way, Hagelin and Kessel are joined by a group of no names that will soon be well known—and preceded by swear words on social media by Rangers fans everywhere.
After Kris Letang, Trevor Daley and Olli Maatta have been the Pen’s best defenseman all season. Maatta’s injury hurts Pittsburgh, but Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole and Brian Dumoulin have been a steady supporting cast. They acquired the former highly touted free agent Justin Schultz from Edmonton at the trade deadline, who has looked good since donning the black and gold.
Posted on April 3, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged Carl Hagelin, Evgeni Malkin, Fleury concussion, Henrik Lundqvist, Kris Letang, Madison Square Garden, Marc-Andre Fleury, MSG, New York Rangers, New York Rangers blog, NHL Playoffs, NHL standings, NYR, Pittsburgh Penguins, Rangers, Rangers blog, Rangers vs Penguins, Ryan McDonagh, Sidney Crosby. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.