Measuring Stick: Rangers-Penguins Home and Home

Beginning tonight at PPG Paints Arena, the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh Penguins, the top two teams in the Metropolitan Division, open up an intriguing home and home set which concludes Wednesday night at Madison Square Garden.

Talk about a real Thanksgiving treat for hockey fans.

These are the first two games this season between the first-place Rangers, who come in at 13-5-1 with 27 points, and the Penguins, who are nipping at New York’s heels with an 11-4-3 record and 25 points. They are also the first meetings since the Penguins overwhelmed the Blueshirts last spring in the opening-round of the playoffs en-route to capturing the 2016 Stanley Cup.

Both teams play a similar exciting brand of hockey. Fast-paced. Up-tempo. High-scoring. Quick transition. Solid goaltending.

The two coaches, Alain Vigneault and Mike Sullivan, both stress that offensive chances derive from strong defensive play at the other end of the rink; and both teams feature defensemen who are adept at making the smart defensive play and quick outlet pass to jumpstart offensive rushes the other way.

Other than early season jockeying in the standings, what makes these two games so important for each team?

Rangers Revival

The Rangers were embarrassed by the Penguins in the Metropolitan Division semifinals last April, ousted in five games and outscored 21-10. With the series tied at a game apiece the Penguins reeled off three straight victories to close out the series, winning 3-1 and 5-0 in New York and 6-3 in the clincher back home. Henrik Lundqvist was hurt in the series opener, and then pulled in both Games Four and Five, ultimately watching his team’s season end while sitting at the end of the bench.

In a way the convincing series defeat forced Vigneault and Rangers’ management to reassess personnel, style of play, and what led to the club’s poor second-half play and post-season flame out. The series also provided New York with a blueprint in how to succeed in the new NHL because the speedy, skilled Penguins are what the Rangers have morphed into this season.

Now the Blueshirts want to show the Penguins they can beat Pittsburgh at its own game, making this home-and-home a true measuring stick.

New York leads the NHL with 76 goals and a +31 goal differential. Six Blueshirts have scored at least seven goals, with veteran burner Michael Grabner among the league leaders with 11. The Rangers have netted five goals or more in nine games already this season, reaching seven on two separate occasions.

However, the Rangers have stumbled a bit this past weekend, totaling only four goals while losing consecutive games for the first time this year, 4-2 in Columbus on Friday and 3-2 to the Panthers in a Garden shootout Sunday.

Worse, the Rangers have lost No. 1 center Mika Zibanejad for six-to-eight weeks with a fractured fibula, suffered in a ghastly crash into the boards against Florida. Zibanejad is New York’s third-leading scorer with 15 points (5-10-15).

Depth has been as important a factor in the team’s early season success so far as has speed and skill. That depth will be put right to the test in Pittsburgh just 24 hours after Zibanejad’s injury.

In the short-term Oscar Lindberg is back in the lineup and Vigneault will likely shake up his lines to fill the void created by Zibanejad’s absence, perhaps giving more even-strength minutes to fourth-line power play specialist Brandon Pirri and an even bigger role to third-line center Kevin Hayes, who is second on the team with 16 points (8-8-16).

Antti Raanta will start in goal Monday. Not only has he been splendid with a 4-0-0 record, 2.05 GAA and .938 save percentage as Lundqvist’s understudy this year, but he will provide some fresh legs to a Rangers team playing on the road in a tough building in the second game of a back-to-back scenario.

We are the Champions

While much of the early season talk has centered around the Rangers in the Metropolitan Division, the Penguins are not only the defending Stanley Cup champions, but they are off to an equally impressive start, as well.

This is a proud Penguins team which takes this rivalry with the Rangers extremely seriously. Remember, before knocking off the Blueshirts last spring, the Penguins were eliminated by the Rangers in the previous two post seasons. Famously in 2014 New York rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit to beat the Penguins in seven, clinching the series on Pittsburgh’s home ice.

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There are enough key players remaining on this Pittsburgh squad that remember the sting of those series defeats, and while last year’s Cup win has been a salve for those Rangers-inflicted wounds, these Penguins are well aware of New York’s fast start and accompanying media exposure this fall.

Pittsburgh has not been nearly as exciting as New York through the first 18 games this season, though its fourth-ranked power play has been a difference maker. The team’s goal differential is only a +2. Yet that is likely due to three blowout defeats; and at the end of the day the Penguins can find themselves tied for first place in the division with a regulation victory on Monday.

Don’t expect the Penguins to have any sympathy for New York’s injuries either, the one to Zibanejad as well as the one to Pavel Buchnevich, who is undergoing an MRI Monday for a back issue. The Penguins opened the season with Sidney Crosby sidelined by a concussion. Kris Letang missed five games with an upper body injury. They will play Monday without two injured top forwards, Patric Hornqvist and Chris Kunitz.

Though coming off a loss to the Sabres on Saturday, the Penguins are 8-2-3 entering this home-and-home showdown with the Blueshirts. Crosby has 12 goals in 12 games, including goals in four of his last five contests. Marc-Andre Fleury gets the start between the pipes.

The Penguins are the champs; but the Rangers offer up a measuring stick for them, as well.