BREAKING DOWN PENGUINS – RANGERS
Based on the team we saw the last 20-25 games of the regular season, the Penguins first round series with Columbus went about as expected. There were up’s and down’s from the Penguins, periods of playing Stanley Cup hockey and stretches of playing the type of hockey that gets you ousted from the playoffs.
At the end of the day the superior team advanced. Columbus never truly had a shot in that series unless Sergei Bobrovsky showed up and he didn’t. Bobrovsky and defenseman James Wisniewski were the goats of the series.
We saw a lot of positives from the Penguins in Round 1 from Brandon Sutter finally looking like the player management thought they were getting two summers ago to Evgeni Malkin stepping up in a big way in Game 6, ect. When the Penguins were hit with some adversity, they responded and got by without relying so heavily on their stars.
In Round 2, the Penguins are going from playing a grind it out team in the Blue Jackets that had to work very hard to score dirty goals to a team in the Rangers that can push the tempo.
Many see the Rangers as a better team than the Flyers but an easier matchup for the Penguins, while Rangers people believe the Penguins are an easier matchup for them than the Flyers were. We’ll see how that plays out.
The Rangers have some of the critical ingredients you need to beat the Penguins in a seven game series; 1. A great goaltender who can steal a series in Henrik Lundqvist; 2. A legitimate shutdown pair in Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi; 3. A strong puck possession game.
McDonagh ones of the NHL’s top shutdown defenseman will get the primary matchup against Crosby who hasn’t scored a playoff goal in 11 games. If Bylsma opts to split Crosby and Malkin up for the most part, the Rangers then have Marc Staal anchoring a No. 2 pair with Anton Stralman to matchup up against Malkin. Last series the Blue Jackets were one “pair” strong and that was it. The Rangers have a very underrated blueline and a top-4 that is among the best in the NHL.
A focus for the Penguins will be getting in on the forecheck against McDonagh and Girardi. Crosby today said that one underrated aspect of McDonagh’s and Girardi’s game is getting the puck out of the zone when in trouble. “They’re physical, but they’re also able to skate their way out of trouble,” Crosby said of McDonagh and Girardi.
The Rangers have good depth down the middle in Derek Stepan, Derrick Brassard, Brad Richards, Dominic Moore but they lack that type of elite shutdown center who can shutdown a Crosby or Malkin in a series like Patrice Bergeron does and Brandon Dubinsky did to Crosby in Round 1.
Against Columbus the Penguins were able to get away with playing careless with the puck. Columbus didn’t have a strong transition game to turn giveaways into odd man rushes. New York has that ability and being sloppy with the puck is one element from Round 1 that will need to change from the Penguins against New York.
“They have depth, guys who like to control puck,” Crosby said this morning of the Rangers.
With Chris Kreider still ailing and expected to miss at least the first two games of the series, Rick Nash is a huge X-factor for the Rangers. You never know what you’re going to get from him and he has to be one of the Rangers best players in the series for them to beat the Penguins. In most cases, Nash comes up small in big time situations.
One scouts view is that life is going to be easier for Nash with Brooks Orpik still out of the lineup. The Penguins struggle to clear the front of the net and the Rangers are smallish upfront and the lack of a net-front presence is one area the Rangers really miss Kreider right now. Nash and under the radar winger Benoît Pouliot are among the Rangers only wingers with power forward type ability and strength to cause havoc in front of the net.
Last year during a media scrum, Brooks Orpik called Nash, Milan Lucic and Alex Ovechkin among the three toughest forwards to defend in the NHL. Nash is over-rated by the media but he’s still a player that opposing players fear.
As for the Penguins, Marc Andre Fleury remains their key X-factor. He took baby steps in Round 1, rebounding from the Game 4 debacle, en route to winning his first series since April 2010. Fleury is a good goaltender and it was a matter of time before he won a playoff series. Fleury had his good moments against Columbus but there wasn’t a game afterwards that you’d say he “stole that game” for the Penguins. Game 4 was nearly it.
Fleury had a good but not great series against the Blue Jackets. The Penguins still gave up 18 goals to a mediocre offensive team and Fleury posted just a .908 save percentage.
As the Penguins get deeper and deeper in the playoffs, there’s going to be a point where Fleury needs to steal a game or multiple games in a series. There’s a good chance that they will need him to do that once or twice this series.