The Penguins are the favorites, but it’s impossible to ignore that the Rangers have won seven of their last eight playoff games head-to-head in eliminating Pittsburgh the last two years.
In 2014, they stormed back from a 3-1 deficit to knock out Dan Bylsma’s Pens in the second round, galvanized by the death of since-retired Rangers forward Martin St. Louis’ mother prior to Game 5. Then last spring, they stamped out Mike Johnston’s Penguins in five in a first-round series that was tighter than its length suggested.
Now, the Rangers meet an opponent three straight years in the playoffs for the sixth time in franchise history.
The Blueshirts are only 2-4 all-time in six playoff series against Pittsburgh, and ex-Ranger assistant Mike Sullivan’s Penguins are the hottest team in the NHL. So it will take all Alain Vigneault’s Rangers have to end the Pens’ season in three straight springs.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible.
Sidney Crosby and Mats Zuccarello.
Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider were this season’s leading scorers up front, but Rick Nash will be the X-factor. Nash has only nine goals in 56 playoff games as a Ranger, and there is a good chance if he flames out again this postseason that GM Jeff Gorton will seek trade suitors for the remaining two seasons of Nash’s $ 7.8 million annual salary cap hit. He has to produce. Pittsburgh has sizzled down the stretch not only due to Sidney Crosby’s MVP-level play but also thanks to speedy, high-skill depth led by ex-Ranger Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino and Phil Kessel on the second line. Evgeni Malkin is injured and day-to-day, but the Pens have been red-hot even without the all-world Russian center.
Rangers captain/top defenseman Ryan McDonagh (right hand injury) may be out the entire series with a right hand injury. Marc Staal takes center stage matched against Crosby, with Keith Yandle logging big minutes as the Rangers’ best puck mover. Kevin Klein works hard but must raise his level, and Dan Girardi and Dan Boyle must give much more. Rookie Brady Skjei steps into his highest-pressure NHL action by far. The Penguins’ Kris Letang is what Alain Vigneault called one of “the elite defensemen in the league … You can’t intimidate a guy like him,” the coach said. “He just plays and plays hard.” Trevor Daley, a former Dallas Star who didn’t work out in Chicago, has become a major asset with his puck movement and skating. Vigneault said the key will be pressuring the Pens’ defense when the puck is on their sticks. “When their D’s get the puck and there’s no pressure, then you see them fly out: Hags, Kessel, Crosby. As soon as there is a limited amount of pressure on their defense, that speed is out of the zone and they’re looking for those breaks.”
Henrik Lundqvist and Rangers will have their hands full with Penguins.
Henrik Lundqvist has won seven of his last eight playoff games against Pittsburgh with a 7-1-0 record, 1.34 goals against average (GAA) and .954 save percentage, including a 4-0 record, 0.99 GAA and .965 save percentage in his last four road games at CONSOL Energy Center (111 save on 115 shots). The Penguins’ Marc-Andre Fleury has the 2009 Stanley Cup under his belt, the ultimate trump card, but Lundqvist has bested Fleury multiple times recently and remains the primary reason the Rangers can win again.
The Rangers hadn’t just tired of John Tortorella when they approached Glen Sather in 2013 seeking a change; they were also frustrated by the bad cop-bad dynamic of Tortorella and his assistant, Sullivan. Hagelin told the Daily News in February that Sullivan seemed to be putting players in the best positions to succeed, assigning them roles that fit their talents well. He has clearly helped re-center a talented but previously misguided team. Vigneault, on the other hand, is 15th on the NHL’s all-time coaching list with 566 regular season wins. He has taken the Rangers to the Stanley Cup Final in 2014, the Eastern Conference finals last season, and is aching to capture his first Cup. He came closest to a title in 2011 with the Vancouver Canucks, losing in seven games to the Boston Bruins.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault
Yandle’s prowess on the power play gives the Rangers (14th ranked, 18.6% efficiency) a slight edge on the Penguins’ man advantage (16th, 18.4%), but the Blueshirts’ Achilles heel all season has been their 27th-ranked penalty kill (78.2%), especially on the road. It is no coincidence that they’re struggling shorthanded after trading Hagelin, who has helped Pittsburgh’s shorthanded unit to fifth overall in the NHL (84.4%).
PREDICTION: PENGUINS IN SIX
The Penguins are deep, fast and multi-dimensional. Lundqvist and the Rangers won’t go quietly but don’t have their typical shutdown defense to withstand the Pens’ firepower.