The Pittsburgh Penguins and the New York Rangers have a rich history of playoff battles. Some of the games went the Penguins way. Some went to the Rangers.
All of them were full of drama, and this year promises to be no different in that regard. But there is a decidedly different feel to this version of the matchup, and it appears that a few key factors place the Penguins in the driver’s seat.
Battle of the Titan Goalies
Optimism has not been in short supply in the city of Pittsburgh as positive news has come from Penguins’ practice regarding starting netminder Marc-Andre Fleury.
Fleury is still not a guarantee to start the series, but indications are good that if he doesn’t play in Game 1, he will likely play soon after.
Both Fleury and Rangers’ backstop Henrik Lundqvist are elite goaltenders, but before we start showering them with praise, let’s get to the fun stuff.
Fleury called Lundqvist shoving over the net “baby stuff.”
— Tim Benz (@BenzTribLive970) March 4, 2016
Lundqvist flipping over his net made for a great storyline going forward. But when Fleury called Lundqvist’s antics “baby stuff,” it took the situation to a whole new level.
How many times do you think that we will see that net flipping video during the series? Over/under 1,000?
Alright, now for the praise heaping.
In this author’s opinion, both goalies are going to easily end up in the Hall of Fame when their careers are over.
Fleury and Lundqvist are among the best at their position, and there will most likely be games decided in this series based on their play. But the way that the season series went in 2015-16, my money is on Fleury to be the better goalie.
Now get ready for a controversial statement …
The Penguins have gotten into Lundqvist’s head.
Fleury on the ice. Lundqvist off the ice. So much goalie news https://t.co/r5wcb2dmgA
— The 4th Line Podcast (@The4thLinePod) April 11, 2016
When the two teams have played this year, Lundqvist was not quite the same goalie that he has been in the past. At times in his career, the Swedish product looked larger than life.
No longer. Not against the Penguins at least. Since the aforementioned net-flipping incident, Lundqvist has looked beatable, frustrated, and … human.
Fleury has been the Penguins’ most consistently good player all season, while Lundqvist might finally have a chink in his shining armor. Much depends on Fleury’s health, and never count out King Henrik, but I place this advantage with the Penguins.
The Penguins Have a Need for Speed
The last time that these two teams met in the playoffs, one of the deciding factors was the Rangers’ speed.
Carl Hagelin was a big part of that speed and aggressive play, but now he plays for the Penguins. I recently wrote an article detailing how the acquisition of Hagelin changed the identity of the Penguins.
The bottom line is that the Rangers made a mistake parting with the speedster, and they are likely to regret it even more when they feel Hagelin’s impact starting Wednesday.
#NYRonMSG With Pittsburgh having second line change at home, how do the Rangers prepare for the Hagelin/Kessel line’s speed?
— Tom Crincoli (@ThomasCrincoli) April 12, 2016
But Hagelin isn’t the only Penguins’ player that can put on the jets. Phil Kessel, Kris Letang and Trevor Daley can flash a lot of speed as well. Penguins’ general manager Jim Rutherford made acquiring speed a priority this season. He has done that and then some. But they have also turned into a team with speed, tenacity, and a blue-collar attitude.
In the past, many accused the Penguins of always trying to be too fancy with the puck, while others questioned their compete level.
Conor Sheary is a REALLY GOOD hockey player…makes up for lack of size..with size of HEART, instincts and speed. Like Zuccarello #Penguins
— Bob Pompeani (@KDPomp) April 8, 2016
The team has found a nice mix of youngsters with lots of drive and determination in the form of Conor Sheary, Bryan Rust and Tom Kuhnhackl. Chris Kunitz and Patric Hornqvist have long been known for getting their noses dirty, and Sidney Crosby is perhaps the most talented grinder to ever play the game.
Goaltending, speed and tenacity were once the hallmarks of the Rangers’ game. Now those advantages belong to the Penguins.
However, they do play the games for a reason, and it will be fun to watch.
Until next time.