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Regular season recap
Feb. 10: Rangers 3, Penguins 0
March 3: Penguins 4, Rangers 1
March 13: Penguins 5, Rangers 3
March 27: Penguins 3, Rangers 2 (OT)
Rangers: D Ryan McDonagh, (broken right hand, day-to-day), D Dan Girardi (lower body, day-to-day), LW Viktor Stalberg (lower body, day-to-day), RW Mats Zuccarello (lower body, day-to-day), C Eric Staal (upper body, day-to-day)
Penguins: G Marc-André Fleury (concussion, day-to-day), G Matt Murray (head injury, day-to-day), C Evgeni Malkin (upper body, indefinite), D Olli Maatta (lower body, day-to-day)
Keys to a Rangers victory
The Rangers' fate rests, as always, on the shoulders of Henrik Lundqvist. The 34-year-old netminder has been his usual cornerstone self—35-21-7, 2.48 GAA, .920 save percentage—but there is cause for concern. He’s allowed four or more goals 15 times this season—nearly a quarter of his starts—and his GAA is his worst since he began his NHL career with New York in 2005. The Rangers, with their middling 18.6% power play and 26th-ranked penalty kill (78.2%) will surely need him to be in top form against the red hot Penguins, so seeing him leave practice early on Monday reportedly feeling under the weather was not exactly an auspicious sign. (He returned on Tuesday.)
New York has no shortage of scorers—both Mats Zuccarello (26-35-61) and J.T. Miller (22-21-43) have had career years, and Derek Stepan (22-31-53), Chris Kreider (21-22-43), Rick Nash (15-21-36) and Eric Staal (3-3-6 in 20 games since being acquired from Carolina) offer the promise of secondary scoring. But danger lurks on the backline. Possibly being without captain Ryan McDonagh for more than few games to start the postseason means the Rangers will have to give first-pair minutes to second-pair defenders in Marc Staal and Kevin Klein, and more defensive zone time to potential liabilities Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle. It’s a domino effect that can lead to potentially negative results, especially against an offensive powerhouse like the Penguins. Lundqvist must be there to bail the Blueshirts out if they are to steal this series.
Keys to a Penguins victory
The Penguins are the hottest team in hockey right now, but it means nothing if they have to start a rookie goaltender. With the uncertainty surrounding both Marc-André Fleury and Matt Murray, the idea that Tristan Jarry will mind the nets come playoff time is worrying. Jarry is actually a good prospect, who put up fine numbers in the AHL (17-13-3, 2.69 GAA, .905 save percentage), but he’s 20 years old and has never played in the NHL. This is no Ken Dryden situation. If either Fleury or Murray are healthy, then the Pens are in good shape. Fortunately, Fleury practiced on Monday and is said to be free of concussion symptoms.
With great depth that could be boosted by the return of Evgeni Malkin, the Pens have turned things around since they fired coach Mike Johnston in December and replaced him with Mike Sullivan. Forwards Matt Cullen and Carl Hagelin have re-found their games, and Kris Letang is a Norris Trophy candidate. Sidney Crosby has worked himself out of his early season slump and the third and fourth lines are deep and dangerous. On talent alone, the Penguins should beat the Rangers pretty handily, and Pittsburgh will be highly motivated to avenge its playoff ousters by New York in each of the past two years, but it will all come down to the goalies. If Fleury is healthy, how effective will he be after his layoff? He went 35-17-6 with a 2.29 GAA and .921 save percentage before he got hurt, but remains known for his playoff meltdowns (see his 4.63 GAA in 2012 and 3.51 in ’13) than for his playoff triumphs (his 1.97 GAA in 20 games in ’08 plus his ’09, Game 7, Cup-winning save vs. Detroit). And if it’s not Fleury but Murray, is the highly-touted 21-year-old with just 13 games of NHL experience ready for primetime?
These teams have had some epic playoff battles, notably the Pens' 3-1 collapse two years ago. But they do seem to be on different paths. Pittsburgh is on a roll with the potential for reinforcements. New York has shown flashes of brilliance with equal displays of ineptitude. The Rangers' considerable playoff experience (they've played beyond the first round the past four years and have qualified in all but one of Lundqvist's 11 seasons) is a factor, but assuming either Fleury or Murray are healthy, the Pens are simply the better team. Penguins in seven.