Originally I had stated that I was going to do a preview of each series, but ran out of time quickly, so now I’ve decided to do a quick preview for each game of the playoffs. Not too in depth, but enough to help you guys find out who is in, who is out, who is in net and who has the advantage.
Shortly after the Lightning and Red Wings kick-off the playoffs in Tampa Bay, the Penguins and Rangers will get their series underway in Pittsburgh. These two teams are quite familiar with each other and come in with no shortage of drama.
The biggest unknown in this game remains the Penguins goaltender. It looked during the morning skate that Marc-Andre Fleury is set to return after a five-game absence with a concussion, but head coach Mike Sullivan declared Fleury a “game-time decision.’ Regardless of who starts for the Penguins, the Rangers have the clear advantage in net with Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist had another strong season and has proven he can be a beast in the playoffs. Despite a career playoff record below .500, Lundqvist has gone 39-36 with a GAA 2.14 or lower and a .927 or higher SV% in each of the last four playoffs.
Even without Evgeni Malkin in the lineup, the Penguins are still stronger up front and that seems funny to say when you look at these two teams on paper. The Rangers have a lot bigger names up and down their lineup, but Alain Vigneault has had a difficult time figuring out how to deploy them. For the Penguins, Sidney Crosby has been on an absolute tear for the last few months, while Malkin’s absence allowed Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino and Carl Hagelin to play together and build some tremendous chemistry. In their last 10 regular season games, Bonino has led that line with 13 points (4G / 9A), followed closely by Kessel, who had 12 (5G / 7A) and Hagelin who picked up nine points (5G / 4A) of his own.
The Rangers struggled to score down the stretch, but that didn’t slow Derek Stepan down at all. Stepan picked up 17 points (6G / 11A) in 14 games in the final month of the season, but the rest of the lineup was largely held in check. The addition of Eric Staal hasn’t really worked the way they had hoped. He has played a third line role since coming over and has only picked up six points (3G / 3A) in 20 games. Rick Nash has had his fair share of struggles as well, picking up just three goals in 15 games since retuning from a knee injury.
The bluelines are tough to call because the Penguins have the best defenseman in Kris Letang and the Rangers are without their best rearguard in Ryan McDonagh. However, I’ll still give the slight edge to the Rangers. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi will draw the tough task of trying to stop Crosby and given their foot speed, that might not go well. It is their second pair that gives them the edge for me. Keith Yandle has had a solid season in New York and Kevin Klein is largely under appreciated across the NHL.
It looks like the Pens might get Olli Maatta back, which would be a huge boost, but the Rangers third line of Eric Staal, Kevin Hayes and Jesper Fast should feast on Ian Cole and Justin Schultz. The Penguins don’t have the depth upfront to feast on the Rangers third pair, so advantage Rangers.
I ultimately think the Rangers are going to upset the Penguins and it will start in Game 1. The uncertainty surrounding the Penguins’ net is concerning for me. They come in as one of the hottest scoring teams in the NHL, but the playoffs is all about goaltending and even when Fleury has been healthy, the playoffs haven’t exactly been a strength of his.