The New York Rangers have been on a historic roll lately. They have won the team’s third Presidents’ Trophy with a franchise record 113 points–not even the Cup-winning 1994 team collected that many. Even more impressive is the way they arrived at this astronomical total.
They were without key parts of their team for large portions of the season, but still managed to continue winning. Now, with franchise goalie Henrik Lundqvist back and healthy and rock-solid defenseman Kevin Klein on the mend, they begin their quest for a return trip to the Stanley Cup Final against a familiar foe–the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Though these Penguins have had a difficult time this year, the playoffs have a way of rejuvenating teams. Once the page turns, regular season records and statistics mean next to nothing. Regardless of their recent troubles, a team with Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin is always a threat. But are the Pens’ dynamic duo enough to end the Rangers’ playoff run before it even gets started?
Early this season, the Rangers offense was coming mostly from Rick Nash. This is no longer the case. When Nash stumbled shortly after the All-Star break, the Rangers’ depth scoring kicked back in and played a huge role in continuing their winning ways.
The Rangers forward depth was a huge reason for their extended playoff run last season. This year looks to be no different, as players like Kevin Hayes, Jesper Fast, and J.T. Miller have blossomed into legitimate threats. After a difficult start, Hayes has become an extremely solid third-line center for the Blueshirts. 12 of his 17 goals have come after the All-Star Break. Fast is now a staple on the Rangers’ penalty kill unit and has been a big reason it is currently ranked 6th in the NHL. Miller has played his way onto this lineup with a hard-charging game that could make him a constant thorn in the side of the Pens.
The big question this year for the Rangers is whether Rick Nash can get the playoff monkey off his back. Hampered by injuries in previous years, Nash has yet to carry his regular season production into the post-season. If this is the year he finally breaks out, it will be nearly impossible for the Penguins to contain this Rangers team.
Don’t forget about Martin St. Louis, Chris Kreider, Mats Zuccarello, Derick Brassard, or Carl Hagelin either. Every one of these players has the capability to change a game for the Rangers, and they all have a history of playing strong in the playoffs. The Rangers have depth in spades, and speed to make any defense look bad. They are one of only three teams to average more than three goals per game this year (Tampa Bay and Dallas are the other two), and depth is a huge reason for that success. It’s not a matter of shutting down one or two players/lines–this team gets scoring from nearly every spot in the lineup.
It’s no secret that the Penguins’ biggest offensive threats are Crosby and Malkin. Obviously, they need to lead the team if the Penguins are to have any chance. But two players, even arguably the two best in the world, can’t win a series on their own. Their supporting cast needs to be stellar as well.
While the Penguins have gotten very good production from sophomore winger Patric Hornqvist, as well as Chris Kunitz and Brandon Sutter, things start to get shaky from there. Blake Comeau started the season on fire (helped by playing alongside Crosby), but has come back down to earth in recent games. Players like David Perron, Craig Adams, and Beau Bennett simply have not been performing at the same level as their Rangers counterparts.
Against a defense as stingy as the Rangers’, the Penguins need to make every shift count. At least recently, they have not been doing that. Depth scoring matters a lot more in the post-season, and the Rangers have a substantial edge there. Crosby and Malkin may be able to will a victory or two for the Pens, but they will need much more help in order to get four wins.
Put simply, there is likely no other team that has as good a defensive corps as the New York Rangers. Led by veterans Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi, and Marc Staal, the Rangers have three players that qualify as shutdown defensemen. This means that splitting up Crosby and Malkin doesn’t guarantee one of them an easier match-up. The Rangers also stand to get better defensively as the series continues, as Kevin Klein is getting ready to return from an arm injury.
Both Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle can be exploited defensively, but coach Alain Vigneault has been good at keeping them separated and away from other teams’ top stars. Their offensive skills and ability to move the puck up-ice quickly add to the Rangers offensive threat.
The Penguins’ defense has been in trouble lately. They have been decimated by injuries, losing both Kris Letang and Olli Maatta. They will likely be without Christian Ehrhoff as well. This leaves Paul Martin to hold down the fort with help from Ben Lovejoy, Rob Scuderi, Ian Cole, and Derrick Pouliot.
That would put the Pens in a difficult situation even with the best of match-ups. Against the sheer speed and offensive creativity of this New York Rangers team, they will be under siege from the opening faceoff. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where this ends well for the Pens.
Henrik Lundqvist hasn’t missed a step since returning from a vascular injury. In spite of missing nearly two months, he still recorded 30 wins for the ninth time in his ten NHL seasons (he recorded 24 in the lockout-shortened 2012-13 season). There is no doubt that he is still the same goalie who got this team to the Stanley Cup Final last season. If anything, the time off seems to have rejuvenated him, leaving him plenty of gas in the tank for a deep playoff run again.
Marc-Andre Fleury has had his share of playoff troubles, but he exorcised many of those demons last year. He was not the reason the Penguins lost to the Rangers after holding a 3-games-to-1 series lead. He has shown determination and strength through the Penguins’ recent stretch as well, and is looking to continue his strong play into the playoffs. Fleury registered a league-best ten shutouts in the regular season.
The problem is, it may not be enough. Fleury can’t just be good–he will likely need to be other-worldly in order to get the Penguins to the next round.
Even with the addition of Keith Yandle to help the power play, the Rangers are still middle-of-the-road. While the PP is not as lifeless as it was in last year’s playoffs, it is still far from being a weapon. It’s certainly possible that they can find their legs in the playoffs, just not likely (see the Penguins’ PK below). If there’s one area that could be a series-changer–this is it.
At least the Rangers’ penalty kill has been effective this season. The biggest surprise here has been Jesper Fast. Fast has been one of the Rangers best PK players, and is a big part of the unit that ranked sixth-best in the NHL.
It’s hard to fathom how a PP unit featuring Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin could not be one of the best, but the Penguins are ranked tenth in the NHL. And this is after a strong start, so their recent performance has been even worse than their ranking indicates. Regardless, this is an area where they will have a chance to make the most difference. If the Rangers take many penalties, the most likely outcome has the talent of Crosby and Malkin making them pay dearly.
The Penguins’ penalty kill has been extremely solid as well. Despite their defensive problems, the PK is ranked third in the league. Look for this success to continue, and keep the Rangers from finding their PP groove. Of course, a steady stream of penalties will give the Rangers enough chances to change their luck.
On paper, this series is a mismatch. However, this is the playoffs, and the first round has become notorious for weeding out over-confident top seeds. Do the Rangers fall into this category? While anything is possible, most of this Rangers team remembers the heartbreak of coming so close last year. This is a team that now knows what it takes to have playoff success, and with leaders like Ryan McDonagh and Henrik Lundqvist keeping them grounded, don’t expect them to take the Penguins lightly.
Last season, this team came a hair’s breadth from being knocked out in the first round by the Philadelphia Flyers–don’t expect that to happen again.
Prediction: Rangers in 5
Kevin has been covering the Florida Panthers and New York Rangers for The Hockey Writers since the 2013-14 season. Before that, he has written about, played, and coached hockey at all levels. He grew up a Rangers fan in the Southern Tier of New York State, but now lives in the Atlanta area with his wife and two sons. You can reach him on Twitter as @kmizTHW , or via email (firstname.lastname@example.org).