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Shea-ved Ice Playoff Preview: Rangers Vs. Penguins

By: Casey Shea
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(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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Round two of the Stanley Cup Playoffs has arrived and the Pittsburgh Penguins have a formidable opponent awaiting them.

This will be a battle between the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division as the Penguins and New York Rangers look to get one step closer to claiming Lord Stanley’s Holy Grail.

Before we get to the predictions, let’s take a closer look at the series.

How The Rangers Got Here

New York advanced to the second round by defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in a grueling series that went the distance.

Benoit Pouliot’s second period goal in Game 7 proved to be the difference, as the Rangers held on for a 2-1 victory to eliminate Philadelphia.

It was a fitting end to a series that saw the teams alternate wins from the start.

As for the regular season, the Rangers finished second in the division with a record of 45-31-6. Their 96 points were 13 fewer than the Penguins.

How The Penguins Got Here

In what some could call déjà vu, the Penguins eliminated a scrappy Columbus Blue Jackets team that was reminiscent of their win over the Islanders last year.

The series was a statistical anomaly in a few different ways.

  • Five games ended with a 4-3 score
  • The team scoring first in the series was 1-5, with Game 6 being the lone exception.
  • Both teams blew 3-1 leads in the first four games and went on to lose.
  • Columbus’ two wins in the series came in overtime, while the Penguins won all four that ended in regulation.

I can’t remember another series going down like that. It was just downright bizarre at times, but the Penguins found a way to win.

As far as wins and losses go, the series played out exactly like their hard-fought six-game win over the New York Islanders in the first round last year.

So, if history repeats itself once again, the Penguins should dispatch the Rangers rather quickly right?

Not so fast.

Season Series (Home Team In Bold)
Nov. 6, 2013- Penguins 1, Rangers 5
Dec. 18, 2013 – Penguins 4, Rangers 3 SO
Jan. 3, 2014 – Rangers 2, Penguins 5
Feb. 7, 2014 – Rangers 4, Penguins 3 SO

Mats Zuccarello led the Rangers with six points (two goals, four assists) in the season series. Zuccarello, Derick Brassard and Benoit Pouliot were tied for the lead with two goals apiece.

For Pittsburgh, Chris Kunitz (three goals, three assists) and Sidney Crosby(two goals, four assists) led the way with six points.

Kunitz’s three goals also led the Penguins.

In goal, both goaltenders finished with identical 2-1-1 records.

Marc-Andre Fleury allowed 13 goals on 133 shots for a .902 save percentage.

Henrik Lundqvist allowed 12 goals on 118 shots for a .898 save percentage.

Players To Watch

For the Rangers, Lundqvist is one of the obvious candidates. The Penguins have been able to get pucks by him this season and have had success against him in the past.

For his career, Lundqvist is 25-19-7 with a 2.46 GAA and a .913 save percentage against Pittsburgh.

However, my sleeper pick in this series is Derek Stepan. He only had one goal in the regular season series, but he is a very talented player that tends to fly under the radar at times.

Is he to the level of Martin St. Louis or Rick Nash? Probably not yet, but he’s not someone the Penguins can afford to overlook.

Stepan played in all 82 games this season, where he racked up 57 points (17 goals, 40 assists). His 57 points were second only to Zuccarello (59).

Of those 57 points, 18 (five goals, 13 assists) came on the power play.

The Rangers scored 10 shorthanded goals this season and Stepan set up three of them.

He’s a player that can be used in any situation and is effective in all three zones, which is what makes him dangerous.

For the Penguins, keep your eye on Kris Letang.

Letang had to shake off a brutal start to the first round series against Columbus. He played very well in Games 5 and 6, which helped the Penguins secure the series.

For their part, the Penguins did a good job of skating away from the post-whistle scrums and did not get sucked into retaliation penalties often.

Letang took a couple of those penalties in the early parts of the series, but settled down as it went on. Letang is at his best when he’s not trying to do everything himself, if that makes sense.

When he keeps everything simple, he’s rarely out of position. He’s got the legs to get out of trouble in his own end to open up the breakout. Plus, he’s offensively gifted enough to attract extra attention, which frees up space for other guys in the offensive zone.

He gets into trouble when he tries going coast to coast and ends up getting trapped in the offensive zone.

If he can keep his cool and play a simple and smart brand of hockey, he could be a major factor in the series.

The other person to watch is Sidney Crosby.

I know, he’s the captain, it’s an easy choice and all that jazz.

The fact of the matter is that he got stronger as the series went on against Columbus. While he didn’t light the lamp, he did rack up six assists. He was close to scoring on a number of occasions in Games 5-6, but the puck just wouldn’t go in for one reason or another.

He’s close and dangerously close to breaking out of his playoff goal-scoring funk that dates back to last year.

History also suggests that Crosby is due to have his name all over the score sheet in this series. In 47 regular season games against the Rangers, Crosby has torched them for 21 goals and 44 assists.

He won’t be held goalless forever.

Prediction

On paper there’s nothing really to suggest that this will be a short series. However, the series schedule offers the Penguins a chance to jump on the Rangers early.

After Game 3 of the series, the Rangers will have played five games in seven days.

I’ll repeat that.

The Rangers will have played five playoff games in seven days when Game 3 concludes.

New York played Games 6 and 7 against Philadelphia on back-to-back nights. Now, they will play the Penguins on consecutive nights for Games 2 and 3 of this series.

Figuring in the overnight travel involved in both of those series, the Rangers are at a major disadvantage to start.

I’m still a little surprised the NHL would do that to a team, but this is where the Penguins need to capitalize.

Pittsburgh’s reward for dispatching the Blue Jackets in six games was a couple of extra days to rest. If they can jump on the Rangers in these first three games, we may be looking back on this series and thanking the schedule-makers.

The schedule aside, these two teams played each other evenly this season. Both teams posted 2-1-1 records and they had similar special teams figures:

Pittsburgh was 5-for-14 on the power play, while New York was 3-for-16.

That’s the area where I think the series will be decided.

In the playoffs, the Penguins are 6-for-29 on the power play, while New York is just 3-for-29.

As for the penalty kill, both teams will be looking to improve on their first round performances:

Pittsburgh allowed seven goals on 27 shorthanded opportunities (74.1 percent), while the Rangers allowed six goals on 21 opportunities (71.4 percent).

The team that can tighten up on the penalty kill just might be the one to advance.

Another key factor for the Penguins will be to put together a complete 60-minute game, which hasn’t happened in the playoffs.

They were better in Games 5-6 against Columbus, but they’ll need to be more consistent if they want to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

Again, this will not be an easy series. The Rangers are a good hockey team and the Penguins will need to be at their best.

Given their special teams edge and somewhat of a gift from the schedule-makers, I can see the Penguins advancing in six games.

Series Schedule
Game 1 – New York Vs. Pittsburgh – Friday, May 2
Game 2 – New York Vs. Pittsburgh – Sunday, May 4
Game 3 – Pittsburgh Vs. New York – Monday, May 5
Game 4 – Pittsburgh Vs. New York – Wednesday, May 7
*Game 5 – New York Vs. Pittsburgh – Friday, May 9
*Game 6 – Pittsburgh Vs. New York – Sunday, May 11
*Game 7 – New York Vs. Pittsburgh – Tuesday, May 13
(* denotes if necessary)

You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sheavedice

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