Rangers vs. Penguins Game 1: Keys for Pittsburgh to Win
The Pittsburgh Penguins and New York Rangers both fought off considerable adversaries to make it to the second round, and the level of play is just going to get higher from here. A dream matchup from the standpoint of the NHL and its television deal with NBC, this semifinal features two of the largest and most passionate fan bases around.
If star power is your forte, there's plenty to go around here. Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, James Neal and Kris Letang squaring off with Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Martin St. Louis and Henrik Lundqvist. Some of the most talented individuals in the league are involved in this series between the Metropolitan Division's top two squads.
Game 1 will take place in Pittsburgh on May 2 at 7 p.m. ET, and there are a handful of things the Penguins need to do to jump out to a 1-0 lead in the series.
All statistics appear courtesy of NHL.com and are accurate through the end of the first round.
Offense from Kris Letang
Pittsburgh's leading scorers against the Columbus Blue Jackets were Paul Martin and Matt Niskanen with eight points each. Offense from the blue line is always a positive, but the Penguins would be sitting pretty if Kris Letang got his stick going too.
When his game legs are under him and he's at 100 percent, Letang is among the league's premiere puck rushers and can act as a fourth forward in the offensive zone. After missing much of the regular season due to injury, it's taken the 27-year-old some time to settle in.
He was criticized heavily following Game 1 against Columbus, but he started to play better as the series rolled on. Letang has been coming along since head coach Dan Bylsma lined him up with Martin instead of Brooks Orpik, and a few goals from the fleet-footed defenseman would go a long way towards ending New York's Cup hopes early—or at least winning the first game of the series.
Go, Go Evgeni Malkin
At times, Evgeni Malkin looks like the best player in the world. Take Game 6 against the Blue Jackets, for example. "Geno" finished that contest with a hat trick and ended a lengthy postseason scoring drought. He's not the kind of player who typically fades out after a virtuoso performance.
Instead, Malkin's goals and points tend to come in monstrous bunches. It looked like he found the "on" switch at the end of the series against Columbus, and he'll need to keep rolling for the Penguins to snag a victory in Game 1.
It'll be interesting to see if Bylsma keeps Malkin and Sidney Crosby on the same line in the second round. The Blue Jackets don't have the high-quality shutdown defenders like the Rangers, and loading up could make the line easier to control for New York.
No Short-Handed Goals
Nothing will kill forward momentum like allowing a short-handed goal. The Penguins developed a nasty habit of allowing the Blue Jackets to get on the board while skating down a man, and that cannot continue against the Blueshirts.
Allowing three short-handed tallies in a series is unheard of. The Penguins only gave up six shorties through 82 regular season games before watching their power play concede on three separate occasions.
The Rangers are just as quick on the puck as Columbus and will be able to cause some serious issues for the Penguins if they aren't able to do a better job of holding the offensive blue line when the puck is there.
Score First and Hold the Lead
Pittsburgh didn't play a perfect first round by any stretch. The All-World duo of Crosby and Malkin struggled to be a factor, short-handed goals against nearly doomed the team, a typically steady penalty kill went south and Marc-Andre Fleury gave up several suspect goals.
The Penguins didn't have a bigger issue in round one than the inability to hold onto a lead, though. If there's a single damning tendency that needs to be corrected, it's this one. Pittsburgh can't score the first goal (or two) of the game and then slowly unravel in the second and third periods in Game 1.
In Game 2 of the first round, Pittsburgh scored the first two goals and held a 3-1 lead heading into the first intermission. The Blue Jackets eventually stormed back, scoring goals in the second and third periods to force an overtime that they won.
Game 4 was even more disastrous, with the Blue Jackets yielding a 3-0 lead before scoring three unanswered goals—including one in the fading seconds of the third period—to knot the game up. Columbus won in that overtime as well.
Winning .333 percent of the time after scoring first isn't good enough. The Penguins were among the six worst teams in terms of closing out games in the first round, and every other team that they're near is no longer in the dance.
At this juncture, it's almost a forgone conclusion that Fleury will make life more difficult for the Penguins. He almost gave Game 6 away and allowed the Blue Jackets to score three times in the third period. A 4-0 lead evaporated and almost forced Pittsburgh into a Game 7 situation.
Four-goal leads can't be squandered. It just can't happen. Stanley Cup teams can close out two-goal victories. Casual fans would turn off a Boston Bruins game if they lead 4-0 in the third period because there's no way the B's are going to let a team climb out of that hole.
Fleury wasn't responsible for every comeback goal, but he's in control to a large degree. He can't be a question mark in this series. Not even for an instant, and certainly not in Game 1.