Penguins vs. Rangers: Preview and Prediction for NHL Playoffs 2014 Matchup
The Pittsburgh Penguins are in the second round for the second consecutive season. This is the third straight season the New York Rangers have gotten as far as the conference semifinal.
Despite their mutual successes, this is the first time the Penguins and Rangers are meeting in the playoffs since 2008. Pittsburgh won that conference semifinal series in five games as Marc-Andre Fleury got the better of Henrik Lundqvist.
A lot has changed since then, but many of the key faces—Lundqvist, Fleury, Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Dan Girardi, Marc Staal—are back for the 2014 edition.
Can the Rangers find a way to shut down the Penguins' stars? Can Pittsburgh get scoring from anyone outside of its core players? Will Fleury allow a crippling goal from behind the net or center ice that derails the series?
All of those answers and more (including the brutally busy schedule) lie ahead in this slideshow.
It was quite the roller-coaster ride, but the Penguins extinguished the Columbus Blue Jackets in six games. Through the first five games of the series, the team that scored first lost. Pittsburgh relinquished a two-goal lead and lost twice but took care of business in Games 5 and 6 to win the series.
Fleury reverted to recent postseason form at the end of Game 4, allowing a pair of bad goals that cost the Penguins the game. For the series, he had a .908 save percentage, which isn't great but was good enough in the first round.
New York Rangers
They followed the win-loss-win pattern through seven games, so the Rangers won the first and last games of their seven-game series against the Flyers. They were a dominant force at five-on-five but righteously struggled on special teams.
They came up empty on the power play in the final five games of the series and allowed six power-play goals to the Flyers. When the chips were down in Game 7, the Rangers delivered, but because of the length of the series, Game 1 against the Penguins will be New York's fourth in six days.
Schedule and TV Info
Game 1: Friday, May 2, at 7 p.m. ET; Rangers at Penguins; NBCSN, CBC, RDS
Game 2: Sunday, May 4, at 7:30 p.m. ET; Rangers at Penguins; NBCSN, CBC, RDS
Game 3: Monday, May 5, at 7:30 p.m. ET; Penguins at Rangers; NBCSN, CBC, RDS
Game 4: Wednesday, May 7, at 7:30 p.m. ET; Penguins at Rangers; NBCSN, CBC, RDS
Game 5*: Friday, May 9, TBD; Rangers at Penguins; CBC
Game 6*: Sunday, May 11, TBD; Penguins at Rangers; CBC
Game 7*: Tuesday, May 13, TBD; Rangers at Penguins; CBC
What will Marc-Andre Fleury do this time?
He had a brain cramp at the end of regulation in Game 4 and flubbed a wrist shot from the other side of the continent by Nick Foligno in overtime, but besides that, Marc-Andre Fleury was solid in the first round against the Blue Jackets.
The problem for Fleury is "but besides that" has been his MO the past three seasons, and moments like that could cost him against the Rangers.
How special will the special teams be?
The Rangers advanced because of their strong five-on-five play, not because of their dreadful power play (10.3 percent, 14th) and penalty kill (71.4 percent, 14th) that nearly cost them the series.
The Penguins' penalty kill wasn't great against the Blue Jackets (74.1 percent), but the power play that was ranked first in the regular season was a solid 20.7 percent against Columbus.
Whichever squad wins this battle likely wins the series.
Can the Rangers handle the schedule?
Because of building availability and NBC's ruling fist, the Rangers are about to embark on a run of games that won't offer much rest. After playing Games 6 and 7 against the Flyers on back-to-back days, they will play Game 1 on Friday, then Games 2 and 3 on Sunday and Monday.
That's five games in seven days. By finishing their first-round series in six games, the Penguins have a massive edge as the series moves forward.
Players to Watch
Rick Nash, New York Rangers
Seven games, zero goals. Not too many teams can survive that type of performance from arguably their best goal scorer, but the Rangers found a way in Round 1.
As nice as his peripheral numbers are (30 shots on goal, 62.1 percent Corsi share at five-on-five), he needs to put a puck in the net at some point if the Rangers want to beat the Penguins.
Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins
Six games, zero goals. Again, it doesn't look like he had a great first round, but he really did. He had six assists and just like Nash, Crosby drove possession (61.3 percent Corsi share at five-on-five) at a ridiculous rate.
How he handles a much tougher matchup will go a long way toward deciding if the Penguins win this series or go home early.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
You know the scene in Beautiful Girls where Timothy Hutton is describing his girlfriend? "A good, solid, seven-and-a-half." That's the best way of describing Lundqvist's play against the Flyers. Nothing terrible, nothing outstanding, just a good, solid, seven-and-a-half.
When he had to make a tough save, he was usually there, but he never stole a game. That will have to change against the high-powered Penguins.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers
Lundqvist had a 2.35/.919 split in the first round. He was fine in six of the seven games against the Flyers but was pulled after allowing four goals in two periods in Game 6.
His career postseason save percentage is .920, and he posted a .934 in 2013 and .930 in 2012. Lundqvist has yet to play his best this postseason, but that could change in this series.
Marc-Andre Fleury, Pittsburgh Penguins
After disasters in 2012 and 2013, Fleury held his own in six games against the Blue Jackets. His 2.81/.908 split in six games won't garner him any Conn Smythe votes, but he was good enough and didn't kill the Penguins.
Fleury, however, is a ticking time bomb that could go off at any time. If the bomb goes off in the second round, the Penguins are in trouble.
Biggest Mismatch: The Bottom-Six Forwards
For most of this season, the Penguins' third and fourth lines were a bologna sandwich left on a park bench on a hot summer day, emitting a foul smell as flies circled the decaying meat. They were able to overcome that because they have the two best centers in the league on their top two lines to balance things out.
In the playoffs, those bottom-six forwards need to contribute as quality teams focus on Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. To their credit, the Penguins are healthier now, and coach Dan Bylsma has shifted his lines in the postseason to achieve balance, but the Rangers still have the edge here.
Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard finished first and fourth, respectively, among the Rangers in scoring this season. The fourth line of Brian Boyle, Dominic Moore and Derek Dorsett have fared well against above-average competition, although they may be out of their depth if they have to face Crosby's or Malkin's line on the regular.
The Rangers Will Win If Their Special Teams Don't Fail Them
After scoring twice on the power play and killing the Flyers' only man advantage in Game 1, New York's special teams went in the tank. The power play went 1-of-23 and allowed six goals in 20 shorthanded situations over the final six games.
That's not good enough to beat the Penguins.
The Rangers should be able to hold their own at even strength with the Penguins. But if they get annihilated on special teams for a second straight series, they could be facing a quick exit. If they can just be average on special teams, that should be good enough to reach the conference final.
The Penguins Will Win If They Receive Depth Scoring
Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin won't be held scoreless, but they'll have a tougher time scoring against the Rangers than they did against the Blue Jackets. That's where scoring from other sources will play a vital role.
And it's not just the lower lines that need to find the back of the net.
It can be defensemen, like Matt Niskanen and Paul Martin, jumping into the offense to create goals. Joe Vitale isn't likely to have four goals in this series, but the third and fourth lines can't spend most of their shifts in their own end, otherwise the Penguins are doomed.
Prediction: Rangers in 6
The schedule doesn't favor the Rangers, but that won't be a problem for them until the conference final if this series goes the distance.
Look for the Rangers' second defense pairing of Marc Staal and Anton Stralman, who were outstanding in the first round, to make a difference in their matchups with Evgeni Malkin's line.
Henrik Lundqvist will outplay Marc-Andre Fleury, and the Rangers' forward depth will win the day.