By Allan Muir
Some quick thoughts ahead of Wednesday night's pivotal Game 4 between the Penguins and the Rangers at Madison Square Garden (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN, CBC, RDS):
• Chris Kreider might play for New York. Or he might not. It's hard to believe that a team would be coy about an injury at this time of year, eh? After the Rangers' morning skate, we do know this much: the 23-year-old power forward has been medically cleared to return to action after missing more than a month due to surgery on his left hand. Kreider was fully involved in the practice and seemed to have no trouble shooting the puck, which suggests that he's very close. Coach Alain Vigneault categorized this game as being "close to must-win," so that might be an all-hands-on-deck situation for New York. If Kreider's not ready to go tonight, he should be good for Game 5 on Friday.
• You know there's at least one guy who can't wait to see Kreider back in the lineup. The fancystats show that struggling Rangers forward Rick Nash is a much more dangerous presence if he's paired with the kid. When the two are together in five-on-five situations, Nash scores 1.081 goals per 20 minutes of ice time. Without Kreider, that success rate drops to 0.591 (h/t to Patrick Kearns for pointing out these numbers). It's no coincidence, then, that Nash has scored only three goals since Kreider was injured back on Mar. 24.
• Here's one thing that Nash might want to consider as he looks to break his 11-game goalless drought: try moving the puck instead of shooting. Conventional wisdom suggests there's no such thing as a bad shot, but while he's trying to get this Cornelius-sized ape off his back, you can see Nash forcing attempts that aren't there. And while that persistence has him leading the NHL with 41 postseason shots, he's missed feeding a few open teammates along the way. Volume is great, but simply unloading wristers from the top of the circle at every opportunity isn't getting it done. Dish the puck, go to the net, see what happens.
• There's no avoiding the stench coming from New York's power play. The Rangers have failed to score with the man advantage on 34 straight attempts, including an 0-for-13 skid in the series against Pittsburgh. The power-play unit was marginally more effective in Game 3 with Raphael Diaz manning a point, putting 10 shots on Pens netminder Marc-Andre Fleury. Vigneault hopes that a day off will help sharpen New York's focus. "I believe with this day off here our execution might be better," he said on Tuesday. "I'm going in there with a lot of confidence and I'm sure our players feel the same way." Not sure about the accuracy of the last part of that statement, but he might be right about their execution. Recharging those legs -- and more importantly, their hockey brains -- might be exactly what the Rangers needed.
• We all remember how much trouble the Penguins had holding on to a lead in their first-round series with the Blue Jackets, so maybe we should forgive Pittsburgh for its ultra-conservative approach to protecting its advantage in Game 3 against New York. Still, the Penguins' success felt more like a bullet dodged than a problem solved. From the 13-minute mark of the second period, they were outshot 18-2, including 9-1 in the third. It's one thing to lock it down, but Pittsburgh essentially ceded the puck to the Blueshirts and went into prevent mode. The chances that the Rangers generated weren't particularly dangerous, but there were still too many moments when the game could have turned in their favor. If the Pens wind up with another lead to protect tonight, look for them to be much more aggressive.
Penguins vs. Rangers Game 3 recap | Box score | Highlights | Observations
• Can't say enough about the rookie season that Pittsburgh defenseman Olli Maatta has put together, but he sure looks like a kid who has hit the wall in this series. His offense has dried up (he's pointless in six games) despite time on the second power play unit, and there are more little mistakes in his positioning, reads and coverages than during the regular season. A kid this promising deserves the chance to work through his missteps, but at the same time, coach Dan Byslma has to monitor the situations he puts Maatta in. Veteran Brooks Oprik participated in the morning skate. Bylsma wouldn't commit to his availability for Game 4, but it seems likely that Orpik is ready to go. If he is, someone has to come out ... but it probably won't be Maatta. I'd expect the scratch to be Rob Scuderi, a slow-footed veteran who has had some struggles of his own in this series.
Penguins vs. Rangers series breakdown and pick