Regular season recaps
Nov. 11: Rangers 5, Penguins 0
Nov. 15: Penguins 3, Rangers 2 (SO)
Dec. 8: Rangers 4, Penguins 3 (OT)
Jan. 18: Rangers 5, Penguins 2
Rangers: D Kevin Klein (broken arm, day-to-day)
Penguins: F Pascal Dupuis (blood clots, out for season), D Christian Ehrhoff (upper body, day-to-day), D Kris Letang (concussion, indefinite), D Olli Maatta (shoulder, out for season), D Derrick Pouliot (upper body, day-to-day)
Keys to a Rangers victory:
When the Rangers took down the Penguins in the Eastern Conference semifinals last season, they needed seven games to do it. This time around, the Blueshirts are deeper, more experienced and prepared for another run at the Stanley Cup. They added Keith Yandle at the trade deadline to make an already good defensive unit into one of the league’s best. With him, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Dan Boyle and Dan Girardi, New York’s top-six will be a formidable barrier for offensively challenged Pittsburgh.
While backup Cam Talbot proved he could capably shoulder the load in a time of need, the Rangers’ net belongs to Henrik Lundqvist. After a lengthy time on the DL with a neck injury, Lundqvist shook off the rust and is now rested and ready for the playoff challenge. Despite playing in just 46 games, he still won at least 30 games for the ninth time in his career, and also ranked among the league leaders in goals-against average (2.25) and save percentage (.922).
An improved defensive game is a big reason why New York set franchise records for wins (53) and points (113), while also leading the league in road wins (28) and points (58). But it is the emergence of the team’s offense that makes this team even more formidable. Led by Rick Nash’s 42 goals, 10 different forwards scored in double-digits. Rookie forward Kevin Hayes made the biggest splash down the stretch, with 13 of his 45 points coming in the final month of the season, while Chris Kreider added 10 points over the same span. Fully healthy and blessed with depth, speed and size, the Rangers’ forwards can create matchup issues for any adversary, and if the Penguins will be anything in this series it will be overmatched.
Penguins keys to victory:
Pittsburgh’s blue-line corps has taken its share of hits this season: leader Kris Letang and talented youngster Olli Maatta won’t be back until 2015–16, and Christian Ehrhoff and Derrick Pouliot have had a tough time staying healthy and in the lineup. Salary cap restrictions left the Penguins with just five defensemen for the stretch run: Paul Martin, Ben Lovejoy, Ian Cole, Taylor Chorney and Rob Scuderi are going to get very tired.
It’s easy to point to Pittsburgh’s ailing defense as the source of the team’s woes, but the bigger worry is at the other end of the ice. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin & Co. failed to score more than four goals in any of their last 15 games, a stretch that included a nine-game scoring drought for Malkin and 12 games without a goal from David Perron; Chris Kunitz scored just one goal in his last 21 regular-season games. Coach Mike Johnston tried everything to jumpstart the offense short of bringing Mario Lemieux down from the owners’ box. Johnston even gave Dan Winnik a ride on Crosby’s wing. The Pens’ offense looks fatally anemic compared to an opponent that should have little trouble putting up points.
If Pittsburgh can’t find its offensive mojo in a hurry, the heat will really fall on goalie Marc-André Fleury who was the team’s most consistent player in 2014–15. But despite his strong showing during the season, the Flower, who set a team record with 10 shutouts, still has to overcome his propensity for playoff collapses. He’ll have to be on his game for the Penguins to have a snowball’s chance against the Rangers—even if the offense kicks into gear.
It’s not often that you can point to a team that has Sidney Crosby as a heavy underdog, but given the myriad of issues facing Pittsburgh in its quest for the Cup, it’s hard to believe that the Penguins can play David to New York’s Goliath. Sure, a zoned-in Marc-André Fleury and a gutsy Crosby could steal a game, but don’t expect them to derail the Blueshirts’s quest for the big silver prize. Rangers in four.