You win down the middle in the playoffs and no team in the Eastern Conference has a 1-2 punch of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin like the Penguins do.
The edge down the middle is in Pittsburgh’s favor, though, it’s not as significant as you’d think.
The Rangers have the edge in bottom-6 centers in Kevin Hayes and Dominic Moore, New York’s third and fourth line centers.
Derek Stepan is a solid Range No. 1 center who showed excellent two-way ability last post-season in the Rangers run. “He doesn’t produce [statistically] like one [top flight center] but he impacts a game like one,” an Eastern Conference scout said of Stepan’s two-way play.
Derrick Brassard is one of those tweeners, a low end No. 2 center/ high end No. 3 type center.
What takes the Rangers over the top in ranking each teams forward group is the superior edge on the wing.
In the top-6, the Rangers come at you with speed and power from their top two-line left wingers in Rick Nash and Chris Kreider.
They have a great mix of skill, speed and size overall in the top-9. All top three lines have a game breaker on the wing, Rick Nash on line one, Chris Kreider on line two and Carl Hagelin on the third line.
The emergence of J.T. Miller in the second half of the season gives the Rangers added speed and a puck hound ability with Brassard and Kreider, while Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault has been able to properly play Marty. St. Louis on the third line with Kevin Hayes and Hagelin.
The Rangers were only one of three teams to average over three goals per game, third in the NHL at 3.02 goals per game and New York’s 182 5 v 5 goals was second in the NHL. Tampa Bay was first with 185.
If there’s one knock on the Rangers forwards, it’s Alain Vigneault’s desire to play Tanner Glass over James Sheppard.
A key storyline coming into the series has been the Penguins superior puck possession numbers and it’s the one area a small crowd is banking on for this series being much closer than anticipated.
The Rangers were 20th in the NHL in Corsi-For percentage, while the Penguins were 7th in the NHL.
Pittsburgh’s improved possession numbers this season cut down on the turnovers inside the neutral zone but they play a bland style of offensive hockey and lack an identity. Over their last 60 games, Pittsburgh averaged under 2.40 goals per game.
Despite being a strong possession team, the Penguins produce low quality chances as teams are able to keep them to the outside and they struggle to get high quality second chance opportunities. It’s remains hard to buy into the theory that the Penguins have just had bad luck for several months.
A reason puck possession is unlikely to have a huge impact in the Penguins favor is the Rangers are one of those teams where they could be getting outplayed for a long stretch and then boom it’s 1-0 Rangers. It’s because they create high quality chances and have the goaltending to withstand lapses in the defensive zone.
The Penguins just aren’t that team anymore.
PENGUINS X-FACTOR: David Perron – The Penguins lack skill among their wingers in the top-9 and players who can create their own shot. Perron is one of the few who can create his own shot but has faded as the season has progressed, similar to how his career has gone in the past. He has just 2 goals in 19 career playoffs and he’s going to be a big factor in the series in a positive or negative way.
RANGERS X-FACTOR: Kevin Hayes – Hayes provides one element the Rangers lacked last year that they now have in an excellent two-way third line center with size. Pittsburgh’s best hope is the rookie wears down.
The Rangers did an excellent job this season vs the Penguins in boxing out in front of the net and collapsing to the middle in getting their bodies in front of shots. Second chance opportunities have been a real struggle for the Penguins against the Rangers. New York is 6-1 in their last seven games vs Penguins.
The last time these two teams met on January 18, a 5-2 Rangers win, those issues for the Penguins were magnified vs New York.
Personnel wise, New York has the ability to match shutdown defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal against the Crosby and Malkin lines.
Where the Penguins have to attack the Rangers D is on the forecheck and in around the crease against a Dan Boyle for instance, one weak link on the Rangers blueline who is being over-extended in having to play a No. 2 pairing role tonight with Kevin Klein out for Game 1.
When it comes to the Penguins on the blueline, there is great concern.
“Who is going to contain Rick Nash” one scout said.
The Penguins hope that answer is Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy.
Another Scout: “Kreider causes them fits even when 58 [Kris Letang] is out there.”
When Kreider returned mid-way through last years second round series, it changed the dynamic of the series.
The game in January when Letang and Ehrhoff were in the lineup together, Pittsburgh still struggled mightily at containing the Rangers speed and net-front ability.
The Penguins forwards are going to have to be fully committed to playing all three zones and taking no shortcuts, especially with back pressure through the neutral zone.
Expectations are the Penguins blue print in this series will be playing cautious, conservative hockey and try to win low scoring games.
Penguins X-Factor: Ian Cole – Has grown more and more confident throughout the last couple weeks. Has a chance to impact the series from an offensive standpoint more so than any Penguins defenseman that might play in the series, including Christian Ehrhoff.
Rangers X-Factor: Keith Yandle – The Rangers having Yandle in a third pairing role will keep him away from Crosby and Malkin, which increases the chances of his ability to be a game changer offensively.
The Rangers are no longer a team that needs Henrik Lundqvist to post a save percentage above .930 and win in the playoffs. Lundqvist has the best team around him that he’s ever had in his career and now’s his best chance to win a first Stanley Cup after falling short last season.
For Pittsburgh to be a threat to steal this series, Marc Andre Fleury will likely need a save percentage in that .930 range. He’s never been that type goaltender.
Fleury had two shutouts vs the Rangers last post-season but his save percentage was under .900 in the other five games. Fleury has a .908 save percentage over his last 16 games.
The Penguins only chance to win this series is Marc Andre Fleury outplaying King Henrik and winning the special teams game in a big way. The Penguins don’t matchup with the Rangers well 5 v 5.
The potential is always there for the Penguins power play to have a huge series. It will be critical in this series.
The Penguins penalty kill has been one of best in the NHL this season but has slipped a bit of lately.
Mike Johnston was hired by Jim Rutherford because of what Rutherford felt was the ability to make adjustments, most notably in the playoffs. Johnston goes head-to-head against an elite coach in Alain Vigneault who is as proven as any coach in the business.
Vigneault has coached (head coach) in 68 career playoff games, including two Stanley Finals, this is Johnston’s first playoff experience as a head coach.
It’s going to be quite the stage for Johnston at MSG.
When it comes to line matching, a key area for the Penguins is going to be how they attack the Rick Nash line. The Penguins will look to get Paul Martin and Ben Lovejoy up against the Stepan unit but which forward line will they look for?
The coaches believe Brandon Sutter is a shutdown center, but he’s not, and if they go that route with Beau Bennett also on that line, it’s going to favor the Rangers in a big way.
Pittsburgh’s best hope is to go strength vs strength against the Rangers top two lines. Try to get Sidney Crosby out against the Nash line and force them to defend.
Prediction: Rangers in five games