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Series Preview, Round 1: Rangers vs Penguins

Bobby Bevilacqua

rangers vs penguins game 1 faceoff 4-16

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

This matchup seems quite familiar.

For the third consecutive season, the New York Rangers and the Pittsburgh Penguins will face off in the playoffs, as the long time rivalry between the teams continues to intensify through intense playoff matchups.

The Rangers have won both of the playoff series in the past two years, including a comeback from a 3-1 series deficit in 2014 after rallying around the death of Martin St. Louis’ mother. That series saw the double goal in overtime from Benoit Pouliot, a St. Louis goal on Mothers’ Day, and a clutch Game 7 win with some excellent goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist.

Last season, Derick Brassard opened up the playoffs with a goal just 28 seconds into the game. The Rangers only lost Game 2, and went on to win the next three games, including a season-ending overtime goal from Carl Hagelin in Game 5, sending the Penguins home.

The Penguins were a very solid team in 2014, and the Rangers took them down. Last year, they struggled under Mike Johnston, and were kept afloat by Marc Andre-Fleury in the five game series, all games being decided by one goal.

It looked like it was going to be a similar situation again this season, with the team floundering under Mike Johnston and Sidney Crosby scoring just eight points in the team’s first 18 games. But Johnston was fired and former Rangers assistant coach Mike Sullivan was brought in, immediately turning around the team’s fortunes. It took a few weeks for them to find consistency, but the Penguins closed out the season as the hottest team in the NHL.

Sullivan has an analytical hockey mind, taking his knowledge of hockey and coupling it with advanced statistics to help put the best possible hockey team on the ice. He’s approached things much differently than Johnston ever did, and it’s paid dividends. The Penguins closed out the season winning 14 of their last 16 games, crawling from a Wild Card spot to the second best record in the Eastern Conference.

So this year’s series is going to be much, much different. The Penguins aren’t just good, they have a ton of momentum and confidence, which can mean all of the difference in the world in the playoffs. This series will be a battle between two rivals who both are desperate to make a long run in the playoffs.

Last season, the Penguins were bitten by the injury bug, which was a huge reason as to why they only lasted five games. Defensively, they were missing half of their top six guys, including Kris Letang. Evgeni Malkin was playing injured, and they had a depleted bottom six. It was a tough situation that was nearly impossible for the Penguins to climb out of.

The Penguins do have some injuries heading into the series against the Rangers, but then again, who doesn’t? Overall, Pittsburgh is in a much better situation than they were last year. They are a lot deeper in terms of forward lines, their defense is healthy, and they have a really smart leader behind the bench.

FORWARDS

Pittsburgh Penguins

hagelin and kessel

Photo courtesy of AP Photo/Gary Wiepert

The Penguins explosive offensive potential has returned under Mike Sullivan, seemingly scoring four or five goals a game down the stretch to close out the season. When Evgeni Malkin went down with an injury, it was surprising that the Pens’ offense actually got better. The lines are still very balanced, and there are scoring threats on all four lines.

Sidney Crosby had the worst start to a season this year in his career, scoring just one goal and seven assists in his first 18 games. But over the next 62 games that he played, Crosby scored 77 points (35-42-77) and solidified himself as arguably the best player in the NHL. It doesn’t need to be said, but he’ll be a focal point of the Pittsburgh attack, and he has the ability to turn any game on its head with individual skill.

Joining Crosby is the underrated Patric Hornqvist, a consistent 20 goal, 50 point kind of player. He’s a solid net-front player, along with Chris Kunitz, another physical type of player that can cause problems in the crease.

Evgeni Malkin will be out for this entire series, which is a relief for the Rangers. He has 111 points in 101 playoff games and would have been another burden for the injured Rangers defense to handle. But the scoring threats don’t stop there.

The Penguins added Phil Kessel in the offseason, giving them yet another go-to offensive guy that’s fully capable of scoring 30 goals a year. Kessel finished strong, ending the year with 26 goals and 59 points. But his season really turned around at the same time the Penguins started heating up.

When Evgeni Malkin went down with his injury, Mike Sullivan bumped up Nick Bonino to Kessel’s line, as well as Carl Hagelin on the left wing. In my opinion, this is the most dangerous line on the entire Penguins team. Blazing speed, pure scoring threat and relentless forechecking make this trio tough to deal with. Bonino actually fits in with Hagelin and Kessel better than Malkin did. His speed complements his wingers, as does his north-south style of play.

Sullivan has also done an excellent job filling out the bottom six with guys from the AHL, where he used to coach. Conor Sheary (7-3-10) and Tom Khunhackl (5-10-15) made their NHL debuts this year and have provided solid production and strong overall play to the bottom two lines. Oscar Sundqvist also made his NHL debut, and has anchored the fourth line down the stretch. The Penguins have also gotten a lot of help from veteran Matt Cullen, who has enjoyed a great season with 32 points (16-16-32) at the age of 39.

New York Rangers

brassard and zuccarello 2-4

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

 

Unlike last season, the Rangers have depth across all three lines and a ton of center depth. Derick Brassard enjoyed probably his best season offensively, scoring a career high 27 goals (career high) and finishing with 58 points. Derek Stepan surpassed the 50 point plateau for the fourth time in his career, scoring a career-high 22 goals and adding 31 assists.

Kevin Hayes and Eric Staal are technically both centers, and they play together on the third line. Hayes is much more comfortable and effective down the middle, and is a great playmaker, racking up a ton of primary assists in his first two seasons in the NHL. Staal is better on faceoffs but playing the wing allowed him to focus more on his offensive responsibilities, which helped him down the stretch. Staal has 43 points in 43 playoff games and could be a big factor for the Rangers.

On the wings, the Rangers have a lot of speed, size and skill. Rick Nash is entering his fourth postseason run with the Rangers and simply has to do big things this time around. He was injured for a large portion of this season, finishing with just 15 goals and 36 points. JT Miller was fantastic in his second full season, scoring 22 goals and 43 assists. He attacks the net and has a vicious wrist shot when utilized correctly.

Chris Kreider is an X Factor for me. It looked like he was going to have a dip in production, but a late season surge saw him reach the 20 goal plateau and almost replicate last season’s production. Hagelin and Kessel have obliterated defenseman down the wings, and Kreider needs to do the exact same thing. He scored seven playoff goals last season, including some really big ones, and the Rangers will be looking for him to bring that same offensive spark this season.

Last year, Mats Zuccarello had a serious head/brain injury in Game 5 against the Penguins, missing the rest of the playoffs and dealing a major blow to the Rangers Stanley Cup hopes. He scored a career high 26 goals this season and led the team with 61 points, bouncing between the first and second lines, as well as scoring 18 power play points. He perfectly embodies the spirit of the Rangers, endlessly forechecking, playing physical and working hard despite his 5-foot-7 frame. The Rangers need Zuccarello to make a playoff run.

The fourth line is crucial to the team’s success. The Rangers went to the final in 2014 partially because of their ability to roll four lines, and the ability of the fourth line to play extremely well in all three zones. They absolutely lacked that this season, so Tanner Glass, Dominic Moore and Viktor Stalberg really need to step their game up.

DEFENSE

Pittsburgh Penguins

kris letang

Photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh was happy to have Kris Letang healthy for almost the entire season, because he’s one of the league’s elite defenseman when consistently on the ice. Letang averages 27 minutes of ice time a night, is more than capable defensively, and also moves the puck extremely well. Letang is an offensive threat, and was second on the team in scoring (16-51-67).

His usual partner, Olli Maata, has been out with a lower body injury, and will most likely not play in this round. Trevor Daley, acquired from the Chicago Blackhawks, has done an excellent job solidifying that top pairing as well as chipping in 22 points (6-16-22) for Pittsburgh.

The rest of the defense is healthy, but nobody will blow you away. The rest of their defense isn’t really adept at scoring, but Mike Sullivan gets a lot out of his guys and knows how to utilize them to the best of their abilities.

New York Rangers

keith yandle profile good pic 1-5

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

For the longest time, the Rangers biggest strength has been their defense, building their franchise from the net out. This year, the defensemen crumbled at times, and it’s the most worrying part of the Rangers team in the playoffs.

First off, Ryan McDonagh will be out to start the playoffs, and it’s unknown when he can return. McDonagh is “day-to-day” with a hand injury that some outlets are reporting as a broken hand. So in his absence, a few players really need to step things up.

Marc Staal has had a pretty average season. His defense has been largely good enough, but it’s also been awful at times this season. But good enough won’t cut it anymore, especially since he’ll be leaned on as a first pairing defenseman and will be matched up against guys like Crosby and Kessel frequently. It won’t be easy, and a heavy burden rests on his shoulders.

I’m worried about Dan Girardi too. He’s coming back from what seems to be a minor injury, and this just hasn’t been his year. He’s significantly slowed down, has seemed lost at times and has struggled to keep up with opposing top players. But Vigneault will trust him with heavy minutes, and he too needs to be up to the task. It’ll be a huge test for both Staal and Girardi.

The Rangers have the advantage of having Keith Yandle for all 82 games this season, and he comes into the playoffs comfortable in the system and ready to step up in McDonagh’s absence. If Vigneault is smart, he will be playing Yandle for 25 minutes a night like he did when McDonagh first got hurt. Yandle will generate offense and help the transition game, led the team in assists (42), and he’s shown to be more than capable of playing solid defense, using his skating ability to his advantage.

After that, Brady Skjei will be getting his first NHL playoff action, filling in for McDonagh despite just seven games on NHL experience. Dylan McIlrath is also an option, and he was solid in his 34 games this season. Kevin Klein will be leaned on heavily for his defensive skills, and Dan Boyle will look to build on his strong late season play.

Goaltending

Pittsburgh Penguins

Jeff zatkoff

Photo courtesy of Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports.

This is where things get tricky for the Penguins. Marc-Andre Fleury was the only reason why the Penguins had somewhat of a chance last season in the playoffs, and he had another solid season this year. But according to some Pittsburgh beat writers, he won’t be available to begin the series, still dealing with some lingering concussion issues.

On top of that, AHL stud Matt Murray also won’t be available, as he went down with a head injury in the Penguins final game of the season. He wasn’t even around the ice yesterday at practice, so don’t expect him to play.

That leaves Jeff Zatkoff as the likely starting goalie for Game 1. Zatkoff was 4-7-1 with a 2.79 GAA and a .917 save percentage in 17 appearances this season, and he’s never played an NHL playoff game. In fact, he only has 14 AHL playoff games on his resume as well. Fleury likely won’t be available for at least the start of the series, so it’s Zatkoff’s net for now.

New York Rangers

henrik lundqvist 1-29

Photo courtesy of MSG Photos.

This is the Rangers’ biggest strength. With the suspect defense throughout the season, it looks like it’ll be up to Henrik Lundqvist to steal some games and stand on his head in order to give his team a fighting chance at a championship this year. Make no mistake, he’s definitely capable of doing just that, but it’s a risky strategy to employ.

Lundqvist was stellar in the postseason last year, especially through the first two rounds. His even strength save percentage was through the roof this season, and he could be the primary reason as to why the Rangers aren’t watching the playoffs on TV tomorrow night.

There’s not much new that needs to be said about him. When Lundqvist is in net during the playoffs, he elevates his game to astronomical heights almost every night, steals games and keeps the Rangers in the game. He’ll probably be leaned on even heavier this season, and we’ll see how he responds as he looks to finally hoist the Cup.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Surprisingly, the Penguins finished middle of the pack when it came to the power play (18.4%, 16th). But with guys like Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and Kris Letang on the man advantage, they can score off of any given penalty. The Rangers penalty kill has been pretty awful actually, finishing 26th with a 78.2 kill percentage. That needs to improve in the playoffs. The Rangers power play was actually better than the Penguins (18.6%, 14th), and they finished the season nicely once Keith Yandle took over the first unit. He and Derick Brassard are a powerful 1-2 punch from the point. However, the Pittsburgh penalty kill did rank 5th in the league (84.4%).

WRAP-UP

rangers vs penguins 3-3

Photo courtesy of Getty Images.

 

This series is going to be a lot more even than last year’s was. The Penguins are a lot more dangerous and have more depth. Their speed will cause problems for the Rangers defense, and they’re a strong team all around. On the other hand, the Rangers’ experience will certainly help, as will their increased depth. Both teams have equal disadvantages in terms of injuries. Special teams could play a big role, especially with the huge disparity between the penalty kills.

The Penguins will win if they can exploit the holes in the Rangers’ defense and stifle their power play, and the Rangers will win if their four lines all play their role, and Henrik Lundqvist plays like he did last year.

If there’s an advantage, it may be the hunger of the Rangers team. They know that this may be their final shot at winning the Cup with this current core, and with certain key players aging. Eric Staal has been waiting seven years to get back in the playoffs, and Keith Yandle’s Players Tribune article shows how excited he is to try and win for the Rangers.

SERIES SCHEDULE

Game 1: 4/13 at 8 PM (MSG)

Game 2: 4/16 at 3 PM (NBC)

Game 3: 4/19 at 7 PM (NBC)

Game 4: 4/21 TBD (MSG)

Game 5: 4/23 TBD (TBD)

Game 6: 4/25 TBD (MSG)

Game 7: 4/27 TBD (MSG)

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Posted on April 12, 2016, in In the Crease and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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