It’s not the matchup that most logical Rangers fans wanted, but after the Islanders did against Philadelphia what the Rangers should have done against Detroit, the Blueshirts are now set to face the formidable Pittsburgh Penguins in the playoffs for a third straight season.
The Penguins, as anyone who has been paying cursory attention to the NHL in the past month-plus knows, enter the playoffs on fire, having won 14 of their past 16 games. New head coach Mike Sullivan, aided by the pickup of former Ranger (and last year’s Penguin vanquisher) Carl Hagelin, transformed a floundering, underachieving Pens club into a very fast team that is difficult to defend against and can light up the scoreboard. That does not bode well for what was a shaky New York defense for much of the season.
Between that and an injury to their captain and top defenseman, Ryan McDonagh, the Rangers could be in trouble. But rather than be all doom and gloom, as I have been frequently throughout this tumultuous Rangers season, I will offer five reasons why New York could take down the soaring Pens:
1. Henrik Lundqvist
The most obvious reason for optimism in the Rangers’ success rests with their best player, Henrik Lundqvist. While the King did not have a perfect season himself, he still finished with very respectable numbers, posting a .920 save percentage and 2.48 GAA. When one also takes into consideration that he faced more high-danger shots than almost any other goaltender in the league, a case can be made that he is actually worthy of the Vezina trophy this season, as TSN’s Travis Yost argued last month.
Lundqvist has shut down the Penguins in the playoffs the last two years, allowing just 11 goals in his past eight postseason contests against Pittsburgh, seven of which were victories for the Rangers. Although Lundqvist, now 34, was somewhat shaky over the past few weeks, one can expect that he will raise his level of play during the postseason, and be the world-class goaltender he has been for his entire career.
A great goalie can make a poor defense look decent, and can shut down a great offense over a best-of-seven series long enough for his club to come out on top. Lundqvist gives the Rangers that possibility.
2. Forward Depth
The Rangers might not have the star power up front that the Penguins do, but they are deep, as their scoring comes from a lot of different places. Even though they are not a good puck possession team (the defense can largely be blamed for that), the Rangers are very dangerous offensively. They averaged the seventh-highest number of goals per game in the regular season, despite not having any player hit the 30-goal plateau or crack 70 points (Derick Brassard and Mats Zuccarello led the club with 27 goals and 61 points, respectively). That makes them a hard team to shut down, as their offense is spread throughout the lineup.
Five Rangers (Brassard, Zuccarello, Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller, and Chris Kreider) scored at least 20 goals. Including them, 10 players had at least 10 goals. This is with former top scorer, Rick Nash only picking up 15 goals in an underwhelming and injury-plagued season. If he gets going in the playoffs (which admittedly has been a struggle for him in years past), the Rangers’ offense will be that much more difficult to stop. The same can be said about trade deadline pickup Eric Staal if he gets going, as well as Kevin Hayes.
Stepan and Kreider each finished the regular season very strongly, so the hope is that their momentum would carry over into the playoffs. Brassard and Zuccarello always play well in the postseason — particularly Brassard, who always seems to torch the Penguins. Miller has emerged as a real weapon offensively, and Jesper Fast will be a major X-factor.
That’s a lot of names to worry about, so stopping them will not be easy for the Penguins, nor any other potential opponent.
3. Pittsburgh Injuries
While the absence of McDonagh, however long it might be, will hurt the Rangers, the Penguins have their own injury issues. Star center Evgeni Malkin has been out of the lineup for the past month with an upper-body injury, and while he could be somewhat close to returning, his appearance at any point in the opening round of the playoffs is still up in the air. The Penguins have surged without Malkin, but perhaps it could be difficult for them to sustain their excellent offensive production for much longer while he is out.
Defenseman Olli Maatta’s status for the series opener and beyond is still undetermined, as he has been shelved since March 24. Goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury could be close to returning from a concussion, but that is still not confirmed. If he cannot go, the Penguins might have to turn to Jeff Zatkoff, as their excellent backup, Matt Murray, was also possibly concussed in the club’s final regular season game on Saturday. If Zatkoff is in net, the Rangers have a huge advantage in that department.
4. Playoff Experience
I am not normally a believer in playoff experience and other intangibles playing a huge role in the playoffs, as I believe such narratives are often overblown (we saw how much experience mattered last year when the young Tampa Bay Lightning advanced to the Stanley Cup Final). But the Rangers are a tight-knit, battle-tested group that has been deep into the playoffs each of the past four years (one Stanley Cup Final, two Conference Finals, one Conference Semifinal).
Perhaps I’m grasping at straws a bit; it’s not as if Pittsburgh has less playoff experience, but that said, the Rangers’ recent postseason runs can only help them in situations where they face adversity, which they likely will in this series. Finding a way to win has been a major strength of Rangers playoff teams in the past few years; for them, that trend will hopefully continue.
5. Recent History vs. Penguins
In this same vein, the Rangers have had playoff success against Pittsburgh, having eliminated them in each of the past two seasons. As mentioned, Lundqvist has been stellar over that span, and he and the Blueshirts were, frankly, in the heads of the Penguins until late this season, when the Pens took the final three games against New York.
Still, the playoffs are a different animal from the regular season, so the Rangers’ recent success against Pittsburgh in the postseason might carry some weight and give them confidence in this year’s installment of what is becoming a regular series. Again, this is somewhat of an intangible, but it’s something the Rangers could possibly leverage to their advantage.