Watching precocious defensemen K’Andre Miller and Braden Schneider take strides toward becoming top NHL players has to be among the most rewarding developments of the New York Rangers’ rebuild this season, with the pair possibly on their way to joining Adam Fox and Ryan Lindgren as a quartet that could anchor the Blueshirts’ blue line for a decade to come.
That foursome, though, is about to receive the most serious test of their progress.
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The Rangers’ young defense corps gets its first real taste of NHL playoff hockey, and how it performs will be more crucial than any other players on the team in determining how far the resurgent club goes in the postseason.
Looming on Tuesday is a first-round meeting with the 103-point Pittsburgh Penguins, led by three-time Stanley Cup winners Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. The 110-point Blueshirts will need their blue-line youngsters, along with veterans Jacob Trouba, Patrik Nemeth and Justin Braun, to rise to the occasion if they want to reach the second round.
The NHL postseason is all about matchups, with the same players going at it over as many as seven games in a series in the playoff crucible. The crucial head-to-head battle for this clash between familiar spring opponents – this will be the eighth playoff meeting, the Penguins having won five of them – will be the Rangers’ formidable but young blue line against the Penguins’ veteran superstars, perhaps no longer at the height of their powers but well-versed in how to raise their game and advance through the playoffs.
The Blueshirts continuing their ascension this season and reaching the second round will happen only if their top defensive pairings of Fox-Lindgren and Trouba-Miller can dominate – or at least mostly neutralize – Pittsburgh’s top two forward lines of Crosby, Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust, and Malkin, Rickard Rakell and Danton Heinan in the Rangers’ zone. As important as presumptive Vezina Trophy winner Igor Shesterkin will be for the Rangers in this postseason, even he won’t make the difference if the guys in front of him can’t limit the Grade-A scoring chances that the Pens’ top guns can generate.
“I like our team, I like where we got a good mix of young guys that took a step this year for us big time,” Rangers coach Gerard Gallant said. “I think we can make a run. I don’t know if we’re going to, but I think we’ve good as good a chance as anybody else.”
Aging Penguins Remain a Dangerous, Battle-Tested Opponent
The Penguins’ championship core is aging. Crosby, in his 17th season, is 34. Malkin, on his way to the Hall of Fame like Sid the (no longer) Kid, is 35 and played only 41 games this season due to injuries, COVID and a suspension. The third member of that trio, defenseman Kris Letang, just turned 35.
Believing the Rangers’ relative youth gives them an advantage over the Penguins’ “greybeards,” however, is dangerous. Crosby recorded 84 points in 69 games – his highest point total in three seasons – while Malkin had 42 points in his 41 contests. Guentzel piled up 40 goals and 44 assists to lead the team in scoring.
Crosby has recorded 21 points in 22 career postseason games against the Rangers. Malkin has totaled 21 in 21 playoff meetings with the Blueshirts. Oh, and the two active NHL playoff points leaders? Crosby with 191 and Malkin with 174.
“Stanley Cups,” Rangers forward Andrew Copp said when asked what he thinks about regarding the Penguins and their championship trio, who won it all in 2009, 2016 and 2017. “The Big Three of Crosby, Malkin and Letang. Three players that have all won three Cups together, know what it takes this time of year, have kind of seen it all.
” … A team that’s made the playoffs I believe 16 straight years, which is obviously very very impressive. Good team, and looking forward to the challenge.”
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By contrast, the defensemen who will be tasked with shutting down Crosby, Malkin and co. mostly know about the NHL playoffs from watching them on TV. Fox and Lindgren, both 24, played all three games in the Rangers’ sweep at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes in the 2020 pandemic-necessitated “Qualifying Round,” while Miller, 22, and Schneider, 20, are playoff newbies.
Trouba’s 30 postseason games top the six blueliners the Rangers will probably go with for Game 1, while third-pair stalwart Nemeth has 28. Trade deadline acquisition Braun, with 100 playoff games to his credit, could draw into the lineup to balance out some of the inexperience.
There’s of course more to this coming battle of Rangers defense vs. Penguins stars than just who controls the puck. The Blueshirts’ scouting reports for this series are certain to emphasize the need to get under the skin of Crosby and Malkin, both temperamental players who can be annoyed under the right circumstances.
These Rangers, though, already knew that. The teams met four times from Feb. 26 on, the Rangers winning the last three, and if those games were any indication, this series will feature plenty of trying to get the opposing team worked up. All four games featured plenty of nastiness and hard-edged play before and after the whistle, and everything finally boiled over in the final matchup April 7, when another intense affair led to the teams exchanging words at center ice when the Rangers were supposed to be saluting their fans after the 3-0 victory.
Maybe it was the fact that the Blueshirts took those last three games, but they did succeed in getting their first-round opponents aggravated. The Rangers should also take heart in the fact that Miller, who looks to be on his way toward attaining elite defenseman status, was a consistent target of Pittsburgh’s ire due to his physicality.
“Playoff is a different animal, the intensity is way higher,” Letang said. “To deal with the ups and downs, either with games, or a shift or a period, you have to be able to stay calm and focus on what you have to do and make sure you don’t get carried away with the crowd or penalties or power plays … managing emotions, stuff like that, controlling the game.”
Time will tell whether the Rangers can get the Penguins to abandon that approach.
Rangers Need Miller, Schneider to Play With Nasty Edge
Schneider’s presence in the lineup, should he dress for Game 1, might also prove pivotal. Though he’ll be able to avoid most matchups with the Crosby and Malkin lines given his spot on the third pairing, chances are that he’ll end up going against them at some point, particularly in Pittsburgh where the Pens will have the last change. Schneider is big and strong and plays a sound, competent game beyond his 20 years, but he’ll have to grow up fast after getting only 43 games of NHL experience under his belt.
Like Miller, whose physical game has steadily been emerging in his second season, Schneider can’t be afraid to pound away at the Penguins’ stars. The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder has also been flashing the jagged approach the Rangers so valued in him as a prospect more frequently since his Jan. 11 callup, and they can’t afford to have him back off now.
When the Blueshirts rallied from a 3-1 series deficit to defeat the Penguins in the second round of the 2014 playoffs, their defensemen made the biggest difference in holding down Crosby and Malkin. Facing the pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman, Crosby was shut out over the final three games, while Malkin, mostly going against the Ryan McDonagh-Dan Girardi tandem, managed a goal and an assist in that span as the Rangers allowed three goals in those victories en route to the Stanley Cup Final.
That edition of top-four Rangers defenders was a veteran group. This one doesn’t compare when it comes to familiarity with the postseason. Yet the Blueshirts were the better team than the Penguins during the 2021-22 regular season, in large part because of the competence of a versatile young defense corps that steadily got better.
Beating Crosby, Malkin and the Pens, who are looking to make what will be perhaps their last playoff run with this group, means being in their faces all game long – something in which this Rangers blue-line group specializes. After all, amidst the postseason-like atmosphere of the four regular-season meetings, playing that way worked out just fine for Blueshirts.
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